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Taiwan's Outlying Islands in Distress

Blue Tears and Green Dreams


Blue Tears and Green Dreams


Are Chinese tourists and casinos the only hope for prosperity on offshore islands? Relying solely on their distinctive natural landscapes and resources, Taiwan's smaller islands have what it takes to lure backpackers from around the world.



Blue Tears and Green Dreams

By Jenny Chen, Kwangyin Liu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 551 )

When the residents of Taiwan's smaller offshore islands visualize economic development, for the most part they think of casinos and Chinese tourists. But what other dreams could they be dreaming?

Some people see development projects targeting Chinese visitors as beautiful dreams, capable of delivering ample business opportunities and a surge of investment. Meanwhile, others see them as nightmares, capable of devastating pristine land.

The residents of Penghu voted against casinos in a 2010 referendum. However, according to the regulations of the Public Referendum Law, a new poll can be held on the same topic once every three years, stoking hot speculation that another vote on legal gaming may be held in the future.

Matsu voted to approve casinos in 2012 by the slim margin of 400 votes. And word has it that even Kinmen is raring to give it a try.

Where does the fate of Taiwan's offshore islands lie? While some people dream about gambling and Chinese tourists, another crowd has taken the road of sustainability.

Eco Travelers Flip for Matsu

The rise in popularity of Facebook and enthusiast photography has unexpectedly made Matsu's stock rise overnight.

Hong Chung-hang, a doctoral student at National Taiwan University's (NTU) School of Forestry and Resource Conservation, flies to Matsu once a fortnight to check up on the local common tern population. He is acutely aware of the changes in the wind. "Before, when people's flights were cancelled due to fog, you'd hear them saying, 'This sucks. I'm never coming back.' But this year they're saying, 'It's so beautiful. I'm definitely coming back again.' Even though they get stuck, they're happy about it," he observes.

What enchants visitors and keeps them captivated is a luminescent sea algae that appears between spring and summer when the wind blows from the south. Dubbed with the poetic name Blue Tears, electric blue dots appear to swim along the coastline as the waves lap the shore, and minimal artificial light interference makes Matsu an ideal location from which to observe the phenomenon.

The "Blue Tears business" has lit Matsu up with excitement and promise, and made seats on flights rare commodities, so that even the eight-hour Taiwan-to-Matsu "slow boat" always sails fully booked. And tourists bearing long telephoto lenses chasing Blue Tears now even fill bed and breakfast establishments on Dongyin and Dongju, tiny satellite islands in the Mazu chain.

On a drizzly early May night, CommonWealth Magazine journeyed to Jinsha Village on Nangan to take part in a Blue Tear ecological tour. The group maintained high spirits in spite of the poor weather.

Four years ago, fortysomething Chen Kai-hsin left the IT industry on Nangan and returned to his derelict family home in Beigan's Qiaozai Village to open a bed and breakfast operation. Dubbed Happy Farm (Chen's Chinese name literally means "happy"), it was Beigan's first example of green architecture.

Last year Chen introduced an "expert guide" service, taking tour groups to the beach to walk in the luminescent "star sand," watch the Blue Tears, cast nets with fishermen, and go to the hills to look for Beigan's rare indigenous firefly.

"At first the fishermen couldn't believe that people would pay money to watch them fish, and that they could make even more money by releasing the catch," Chen jokes. In the past a catch would yield a few thousand catties. (A catty is approximately 600 grams.) It would be sold for about NT$5 per catty, and that was it. Now, they can cast their nets out a dozen times per month and profit a dozen times from the tourism trade.

Even foreigners are enamored with the "mythological bird," the Chinese crested tern.

A gigantic poster at the Matsu National Scenic Area Administration features a baby Chinese crested tern that appears to be sticking its head out from the poster. Next to it, Japanese text reads, "Having difficulty getting a good view? Then come to Matsu!" This approach was infused with the creative spark of Rick Yu, a twentysomething staff member at the administration, in an effort to attract Japanese tourists.

Last year over 1000 people took part in tern-watching tours first initiated in 2004. Visitors from near and far, including the UK, USA, Japan, Hong Kong, and China, now have to scramble to charter boats to take them on excursions.

Secret Underwater Path Rises in Popularity

Many things islanders normally take for granted have suddenly been turned into precious tourism treasures in recent years.

The Kuibishan Geopark, located on Penghu's Beiliao coast, broils under the four o'clock sun. Yet tourists gather on the beach, constantly looking across the water at an island known as Chiyu ("Red Atoll").

An older man born and raised in a nearby village chuckles and says, "We grew up so familiar with it that we're tired of it, but recently so many tourists have been coming for a look!"

As the time ticks by and the tide sweeps out, a strip of black stones is revealed, forming a bridge between the beach and the atoll. Not Moses parting the Red Sea – it is actually a natural spectacle.

"This used to be a secret path we kept hush hush, but now tourists specifically demand to see it. The secret is timing it with the tides," says seasoned tour guide Hsu Hung-yu.

Hsu Hung-yu began organizing eco tours in 2007. News has spread solely by word of mouth, and her customers are eager to keep coming again and again. Still, she has mixed feelings about the tourism industry. "There was no water desalination facility when I was growing up on Penghu, so I hated it when all the tourists came and the hotels pumped all the water out, leaving us on the sidelines to collect water droplets," she recalls.

Although Penghu has ameliorated its water shortage, she reminds tourists to "consider things from Penghu's point of view" and treasure her natural resources. She further counsels tourists not to just follow popular itineraries, taking them to experience traditional fish capturing using rock piles and nets at the outgoing tide.

Jeng Ming-shiou, research fellow at Academia Sinica's Biodiversity Research Center, reminds us that "ecotourism shouldn't be just about eating well. You can only eat a fish once, but you can admire it limitlessly. Fishing should only be done in moderation." After Kuibishan exploded in popularity, tourists removed rocks from the intertidal area as souvenirs. Accordingly, the Penghu National Scenic Area Administration implores tourists to exercise civic awareness and leave the natural splendor undisturbed for all to enjoy.

Hsu Hung-yu asserts that improvement of the tourism industry's professional caliber and changing tourists' attitudes cannot be rushed. She observes that Penghu's tourism is going through a transitional period, and that the ever-growing popularity of Kuibishan and traditional fishing methods among the local populace shows that an increasing number of tourists seek more in-depth experiences.

Old Homes, Military Installations – Kinmen's New Goldmines

On Kinmen more and more tourists are foregoing hotels and opting to stay in traditional Fujian-style houses, just to hear their hosts regale them with tales from local history.

Bo-wei Chiang, professor of East Asian studies at National Taiwan Normal University, conducted cultural and historical surveys on Kinmen as a student. A decade ago, looking with anguish at the dilapidated state of the Fujian-style residences and watching them wither away, he proposed that they be converted into bed and breakfasts. His idea won the support of the Kinmen National Park Administration.

In 2003 the administration set about locating the property owners and making repairs to the old homes, re-establishing building rights and signing 30-year leases with the owners. Public bids were then solicited, and annual rent was set at between NT$100,000 and $200,000 according to size. Further, only "natural persons" were allowed to participate in the bids, to prevent investment groups from infiltrating. To date 79 homes have been revitalized with investment of NT$580 million.

Compared to major development projects this kind of outlay is inconsequential, yet it has attracted a number of people in the prime of their lives to move to Kinmen and inject new life into a community that had long gone silent.

"People on the offshore islands shouldn't just think about attracting big conglomerates, but move toward micro industry. The natural environment can only take so heavy a load, so you can't suddenly go too fast," Chiang says with earnestness, after having witnessed the entire decline and revival of the old houses.

Military installations such as pillboxes and tunnels, left behind after the demilitarization of Kinmen and Matsu, have become major tourist attractions for their historical significance. Administration of Dadan and Erdan islands, once forbidden zones known as "the front line on the front line," was transferred from the Ministry of Defense to the Kinmen County government this past June. When opened for tourism in two years, they are sure to attract another wave of tourists, "storming the beaches."

Cheng Chang-hsiung, deputy minister of the Coast Guard Administration, himself marvels at the intricately carved-out tunnels and historic landmarks dating from the Ming and Qing dynasties, exclaiming: "Kinmen is transforming into an island of peace!"

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman