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From Container Port to Tourism Magnet

Keelung Battles to Change Identity

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Keelung Battles to Change Identity

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Decades ago, Keelung was the world's seventh biggest container port. Today, it aspires to become a tourism center, but the challenges are daunting. Can it succeed?

Keelung Battles to Change Identity

By Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 506 )

For the Port of Keelung, the final day of August was truly memorable. Better known as a gateway for cargo, the port welcomed the biggest cruise liner ever to dock there in its century-long history.

At 6 a.m., shortly after the rising sun pierced the horizon, the 300-meter-long, 10-story high Royal Caribbean International liner Voyager of the Seas slowly pulled into port. The Keelung office of Taiwan International Ports Corp. Ltd. had prepared for the momentous occasion for two months, spending NT$3 million to dredge the port, add necessary equipment and conduct drills. At the same time, it publicized plans to build a new cruise ship port terminal.

This vision to convert the port into a modern marine passenger gateway was an inspired leap for Keelung, but it also exposed the port area's embarrassing lack of infrastructure. The dilapidated port authority's existing facilities are so inadequate, the makeshift customs clearance and baggage collection area is housed temporarily in a dark first-floor warehouse. Customs and immigration personnel and equipment have been borrowed from other units around the country.

The arrival of the sparkling white, five-star Voyager of the Seas only accentuated how rundown the port area and the city itself have become and how far away Keelung still is from ushering in a new era.

The city has not always faced such difficult struggles. Keelung was once the country's biggest, and the world's seventh biggest, container port, and flourishing fishing and mining industries also helped spur the city's economic vitality.

But in the two decades since Keelung peaked in the 1980s, its mining and fishing sectors went into decline, and its lack of usable land held back its development. The rise of other ports in Kaohsiung, the biggest city in southern Taiwan, China and other parts of East Asia also undermined the city's aura.

As the city's prosperity waned and the economy slumped, its residents moved away. Over the past 10 years, the number of people with their households registered in the city has fallen by more than 14,000. Of its 380,000 people, about 100,000 study or work in neighboring New Taipei or even the capital Taipei. In CommonWealth Magazine's 2010 survey on the country's cities and counties, Keelung had the highest percentage of residents who wanted to leave.

Faltering under restrictive internal and external conditions over the past 10 years, Keelung has finally decided on a renewal strategy that is backed by local residents: transforming the coastal town into a "tourism city," catering in particular to cruise ships.

The timing couldn't be better. Cruise passenger numbers are expected to rise globally from 1.3 million this year to 2.4 million in 2015 as the industry's focus shifts to Asia. Over the past five years, cruise passenger visits to Keelung have risen by 70 percent, and the port now accounts for more than a 70-percent share of all such visits to the country. (See Table)

The Ministry of Transportation and Communications envisions the city's future development as "visitors on the inside, goods on the outside." The concept is straightforward: Use Keelung's outer harbor to handle containers to regional destinations, send containers destined for more distant places to the Port of Bali in New Taipei, and convert the inner harbor into an international cruise center to capture a piece of the tourism market.

"Keelung's regional advantages are its proximity to Greater Taipei and its position on international cruise lines' northeast Asian routes," says Keelung Port CEO Lin Fu-kang.

To accommodate large cruise liners, port authorities plan to build a new complex, known as the "New Keelung Harbor Service Building," that will consist of a three-level terminal, to be built by 2015, and a 53,000 square-meter harbor authority office complex, scheduled to be completed in 2017. The port's existing harbor bureau building that has been around for more than 50 years will be torn down to make way for the new terminal.

Renovating portside facilities represents a major step forward for the city, but another challenge still looms. Once the cruise ships and tourists come, how does Keelung keep those visitors in town, especially with its woefully deficient tourism infrastructure that boasts only one five-star hotel, the Evergreen Laurel Hotel?

Soon after Voyager of the Seas arrived at the end of August, for instance, the ship's more than 1,000 Taiwanese and Chinese tourists were immediately packed into buses and sent off to Taipei, barely getting a glimpse of the port town.

In Keelung's heyday as a commercial port, the goal was to move imported goods to their customers as quickly as possible. Now, in its transformation into a tourist city, the goal is to keep incoming passengers around.

Despite being graced with stunning mountain and ocean panoramas, Keelung remains nothing more than a transit hub, because it lacks the necessary conditions to become a tourism powerhouse, a problem Mayor Chang Tong-Rong blames on the city's lack of resources. He may have a point.

After Taiwan was admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001, it had to eliminate the harbor construction fees collected from shipping companies on goods entering and leaving the port. The change cost Keelung nearly NT$3 billion a year, or about 25 percent of its total revenues.

"I have met with President Ma more than 10 times and submitted plans to the central government, but it has not provided any funding," the mayor complained to CommonWealth Magazine.

Another important source of the city's stagnation, however, has been the long-term control of the city by a single political party, the Kuomintang, contributing to the lack of new ideas from the outside and governance lacking in innovation.

Tsai Shih-ying, the convener of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's caucus in the Keelung City Council, explains that because the city's mayors have traditionally come from the ranks of ward chiefs and councilors, they have had a good feel for local politics but lacked vision and imagination on a broader scale.

Also plaguing the city is the gaping chasm in city dwellers' minds between the ocean and the city in which they live. Because Keelung's economy has relied on its port, residents have associated it exclusively with work. They have grown accustomed to the city's single-minded focus on moving cargo that has made it less hospitable to people who actually live there.

"To people in Keelung, the sea is simply something used to earn a living rather than something to be appreciated," says An Chia-fang, the director of the Institute of Oceanic Culture at National Taiwan Ocean University.

Changing Residents' Mentality

A high wall separates Keelung's main port from the road that curves around it, not only blocking the sea from residents' daily lives but also cutting off interaction between the port and the city. Ten years ago, the DPP government proposed merging the port and the city, but the Control Yuan – the branch of government in Taiwan that looks into the actions of public agencies and officials – censured the idea, essentially putting an end to it.

Many Keelung residents now believe that the only way out is for the city to be merged into either Taipei or New Taipei.

Keelung is home to many natural and man-made wonders. It has the most fort ruins of anywhere in Taiwan and serves as the nerve center of one of the country's 10 main folk festivals – the annual Ghost Festival. Its favorable topography led the Spaniards to build a fort in Taiwan 400 years ago.

Keelung also doesn't lack for planning. The city government and Taiwan International Ports Corp. have devised a panoply of urban renewal and port development plans, and the central government has poured resources into the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology in the city's Badouzi District and has made preparations to build a marina in Bisha Fishing Port.

What Keelung is really lacking is close cooperation between the port and the city and the creative pooling of their assets and plans. However, the city has in fact taken some baby steps in that direction.

A few years ago, the port authority took a 50-meter area along the inner harbor's waters closest to downtown and handed it over to the city government, which converted it into the Keelung Maritime Plaza. After the plaza opened in 2009, it became a leisure spot popular with city residents particularly at dawn and dusk. The plaza was not an especially transcendent project, but through the cooperation between the city and the port, it renewed the connection between the sea and Keelung residents' daily lives. It was also the first time the ocean's beauty had been projected into the city.

"Actually, Keelung doesn't need a lot of glamour. If you could simply accentuate its natural beauty of the ocean and the mountains, that would be tremendous," says local artist Wang Jay, who returned to Taiwan after studying in Spain. That, Wang believes, would be the best possible legacy for the city's future.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier


Keelung City

Population: 380,000

Unemployment rate: 4.5%

Major Industry: Port and terminal-related services

Rank among world's busiest container ports by TEUs handled: 57

Source: Keelung City government

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