An Ambitious Gamble
Penghu Island, long a popular destination for local travelers, has set its sights on loftier goals – attracting well-healed international tourists with five-star resort hotels and casinos. But can Penghu realize its grand designs?
An Ambitious GambleBy Jerry Lai
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 430 )
The Penghu Islands used to be famous for their special local products such as sponge gourds, dried squid, brown sugar cakes and peanut brittle, but now the few kilometers of coastline between Magong Harbor and Magong City on the archipelago's main island boast the highest density of upscale hotels in all of Taiwan.
In June 2007 Wang Meixiang, vice governor of China's Fujian Province, led a large fact-finding mission to Penghu to explore the island group's tourism potential. Before her departure, the vice governor told Penghu County magistrate Chien-fa Wang, "Penghu needs a decent hotel."
Spurred by the remark, Magistrate Wang realized that Penghu needed to attract a better-healed clientele.
Within a short two years, a string of big tourist hotels – the Pescadores, the Haiyue, the Ocean, the Yentai, the YaLing – has sprung up on Penghu Island. And next to Magong's Harbor No. 3, the Starwood Hotel Group is building the five-star Sheraton Penghu Hotel, slated to open in June 2010.
From Graveyard to Greenbelt to Resort
The Penghu County government's efforts to attract investors have produced some tangible results. Last year private enterprise sales volume in Penghu grew by 13 percent, the highest growth rate in Taiwan.
This local boom has attracted quite a few young people, who have moved to Penghu to open guest houses. Currently, Penghu which also goes by the sobriquet Chrysanthemum Island, in reference to the wild chrysanthemums that grow here in abundance – has more than 150 guest houses, many of which have opened only in the past few years. With their individual designs, creative decorations, scenic views and delicious food, these guest houses have given Penghu an artistic, cool image.
But Magistrate Wang is not satisfied with the status quo. He envisages a world-class resort area in the Caosiwei district on the outskirts of Magong City. The property, situated on Penghu Bay and owned by the county government, was once deserted, owing to the presence of a landfill and a sprawling cemetery. In July this year Taipei-based Long Feng Construction Co. Ltd. received a permit to develop an international resort there with a budget of NT$1.4 billion.
"It's a great choice!" says Wang, praising the location as Penghu's most beautiful bay, with white sand beaches and a large green park nearby. Wang is convinced the project will become a new landmark for the island.
The project, which will include a 2,000- room hotel, duty-free shopping mall, convention center, golf course and casino, got under way some two years ago with a solemn ceremony to appease the spirits of those who had been interred at the cemetery. Holding three sticks of incense, Wang begged the wandering souls who had not yet found rest among their relatives to cede the eight-hectare space to their Penghu descendents and tourists from around the globe.
As many as 80 percent of Penghu residents say they are impressed by Wang's resolve to stimulate tourism. As a result, Wang came out at the top in this year's survey on the performance of local government chiefs. As soon as Wang assumed office in late 2005, he confronted the county's most sensitive issue, and its biggest obstacle to resort development – the cemetery with its widely scattered graves dating back centuries.
Removing the graves was controversial, and in many cases finding the deceased's descendents proved difficult, because many Penghu natives had moved to Taiwan proper or elsewhere over the years. The county government offered special incentives to those who voluntarily moved the remains of their deceased ancestors to urn towers. In many cases Wang personally negotiated with the concerned families. Within less than two years, more than 10,000 graves had been moved. For the remaining 600 unclaimed graves, the county government held a collective ceremony to release the wandering souls from their suffering.
Right next to the planned resort is Penghu's former landfill. Wang began to gradually turn the landfill into a park when still serving as mayor of Magong City. Today, the island's former eyesore has become a popular recreational park for the locals. Wang even created an artificial hill that protects the area against the notoriously violent northeastly winds that blast across Penghu during autumn and winter.
Liu Shyh-fang, head of the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission of the Kaohsiung City Government, observes that Wang, a former finance official, is very adept at using limited administrative resources.
Wang correctly reckoned that the waste incinerators in Kaohsiung City enjoyed surplus capacity. So he teamed up with the Environmental Protection Administration and appealed to the homeland ties of the more than 400,000 Kaohsiung residents who hail from Penghu to put pressure on the Kaohsiung City government. Eventually, Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu agreed to let Penghu ship its waste to Kaohsiung for incineration – even though the two politicians belong to rival parties. Now that Penghu sends 56 tons of waste per day to Kaohsiung, waste disposal is no longer a major headache for the island county.
Penghu County has the second highest number of library books per capita in Taiwan. Wang again showed his resourcefulness by opening elementary and junior high school libraries for use by the general public.
On the other hand, Penghu has the highest ratio of senior citizens – 14 percent – due to the severe exodus of young people. Every day the county government distributes free lunches and dinners to people over 65 who live alone. Social workers deliver the meals directly to their doorsteps. Wang often tastes the meals himself to ensure they meet the nutritional needs of older people and are cooked soft enough for easy chewing. The county spends NT$50 million per year on this senior meal delivery service, which Wang also views as a means of making life easier for the elderly, while reassuring those who were forced to leave their aged relatives behind.
Political Future Staked on Gambling Referendum
With 500,000 visitors per year, Penghu's tourism resources are already stretched to their limit. But Wang firmly believes that Penghu has the potential to become a resort island serving millions of travelers every year.
On Sept. 26 Penghu will come to a crossroads, when residents decide by referendum whether they truly want gambling casinos on their island. For Wang, the casino project is the greatest gamble in his political career.
"Penghu won't go the way of Macao – our model is Singapore," says Wang, constantly trying to reassure those who fear that the island might become a playground for organized crime like the former Portuguese enclave. He is eager to point out that gambling casinos will account for just 5 percent of the floor space of the entire development project and that gambling will be just one and not the only attraction drawing tourists to the Chrysanthemum Island.
Moreover, he expects that once Baisha Township, a cluster of barren islands north of Penghu's main island, has been transformed into a special tourism and gaming zone, Penghu will even see visitors during the winter when outdoor activities are affected by the winds. Wang asserts that if Penghu's air, sea and land transportation networks are upgraded accordingly, "our visitor target will not be just one million – we'll go for three or even four million!"
However, while Wang paints a rosy picture of Penghu's future as a casino resort, anti-gambling slogans on banners along the streets of Magong City indicate that opposition among the islanders is still quite strong. Unfazed by these public demonstrations of dissent, Wang confidently predicts that the referendum will pass.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Penghu at a Glance
Surface area: 126.9 square kilometers
Population: 95,000 people
Overall Ranking in County and City Survey: No. 6
Governance: No. 1
Education: No. 3
Chinese Version: 澎湖縣 右手推博奕 左手推孝心