Using Tourism to Save the Economy
Sep 20, 2017

Since taking office five years ago, he has helped transform Taitung County from a remote southern coastal city with 40 percent low-income families and a serious population drain into a major tourism hotspot. How has County Magistrate Justin Huang presided over such a turnaround?

No matter how things change, or who gets the upper hand between Taiwan’s major political parties, one local Kuomintang (KMT) administrative chief has quietly occupied one of the top positions in the CommonWealth Local Leader Approval Survey. That man is Justin Huang, magistrate of Taitung County.

Huang achieved his highest survey rank in 2013, coming in fourth among all 22 city and county heads across Taiwan. Even as strong anti-KMT sentiment rose as the Sunflower movement exploded across Taiwan the following year, he not only held strong at fifth, but retained his office in the year-end election. He followed this with strong showings of tenth in 2015 and eighth last year, and he moved back up to sixth this year.

In Taitung County, a region comparatively lacking in favorable conditions and resources for development, how has Huang managed to push local residents’ happiness buttons?

Taitung had quite a difficult year in 2016. On July 8, Typhoon Nepartak made landfall at Taitung City and Taimali, where class-17 gale force winds hit like a powerful bomb, causing damage the Taitung County Government has estimated at NT$2 billion, equivalent to 10 percent of the county’s entire annual budget.

“We have to take advantage of rebuilding to elevate the city, or we’ll have gotten clobbered by Nepartak for no reason,” says Huang, addressing the tree planting and home rebuilding efforts.

Another challenge that has hit Taitung with hurricane force is the continued precipitous drop in tourists from China. Huang relates that in the year since Tsai Ing-wen took office as president, the number of Chinese visitors to Taitung has dropped by one million. Meanwhile, hotel and bed and breakfast occupancy rates have declined 20 percent to around 40 percent of capacity.

3 of 10 Employees Work in Tourism

Despite his somber predictions that Taitung will face a rash of hotel and B&B closings over the next few years, he believes that Taitung’s tourism and hotel industry should take advantage of the opportunity to “revamp tourism.”

“Businesses used to feel that government backing, combined with hot air balloon events and surfing competitions would attract tourists,” he says. A flurry of hotel and B&B openings ensued, doubling during his term in office to a total of 6,000. “Under the reshuffling, only those that work hard to improve service quality will survive,” he says.

Maybe it has something to do with the optimism that comes from being the first place in Taiwan to greet the sun each day - despite the limited resources of a remote area - that allows Huang to find cause for optimism even in difficult circumstances.

In 2010, he took over as county magistrate from Kuang Li-chen, who had the unflattering distinction of being ranked the last among all administrative chiefs in Taiwan. “As soon as I got in office, I was thinking: Wow, this county is really in bad shape, with 40 percent of households low-income families. And over the last 40 years, one-quarter of Taitung’s population has moved away,” he notes.

Contemplating how to shake the status quo, he knew that the first step was for citizens to have their basic needs met. Thus “finding people work” became Huang’s top mission.

Huang began an all-out effort to promote tourism, from the Taiwan International Balloon Festival in Luye, which attracted 600,000 visits in its seventh running this year, to the Taitung County Taiwan Open of Surfing, in which more than 30 international athletes competed in the sixth addition this year. In tourism, Huang seemingly found the answer for Taitung.

According to official Taitung County government data, of 220,000 current residents, Taitung County has a working population of around 100,000 people. Of these, around 30,000 are employed in the tourism industry in some capacity, with 20,000 involved in the fishing and farming industries.

Huang proudly relates that, according to survey statistics from banks and credit departments of farmers’ and fishermen’s associations, county residents’ savings have risen from NT$118.1 billion in 2009 to NT$137.4 billion in 2016, creating additional savings of more than NT$20 billion during his time in office.

Balancing Environment and Economics

However, it is worth noting that the tourism-oriented model has turned off quite a few Taitung locals. For one, long-time bird watcher Cheng Yu-sheng of the Wild Bird Society of Taitung pulls no punches in asserting that, while Huang has undoubtedly brought change to Taitung, he fears that lacking commensurate policy restrictions, the environmental cost of economic development will bring calamity to Taitung.

Cheng cites the example of landslides at the Luye Gaotai Platform with every heavy rain, which were never seen prior to two years ago. “The residents of Taitung don’t want to offend anybody - and only end up offending the environment,” he states.

Sayinu Tepiq, president of the Aboriginal Restoration Cultural Foundation and pastor of the Lalaulan indigenous community, also voices concerns. He notes that although indigenous people constitute one-third of Taitung’s population, the county government has always taken a top-to-bottom approach on indigenous culture and communication with different indigenous tribes.

“If you respect indigenous people’s own consciousness, and adopt an open and tolerant attitude, you’ll find that promoting Taitung’s Austronesian cultural roots makes a more powerful statement than hot air balloons can,” states Sayinu emphatically.

Taiwan’s most compelling cultural and humanitarian connections to the international community are tucked away in its most remote regions. Perhaps in his remaining year in office, Huang can start thinking about reconciling economics with the environment to map out a better future for the people of his county.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

- ASIA TODAY News Global Distribution