OPINION: Kenting Must Embrace Sustainability to Save Its Reputation

OPINION: Kenting Must Embrace Sustainability to Save Its Reputation
Credit: CNA

What you need to know

Taiwan's most maligned tourist destination must abandon its old bag of tricks if it plans to survive.

Most of Taiwan’s tourism companies have business models that only focus on maximizing short-term benefits. This causes major environmental damage and adversely affects the quality of each visitor’s experience. In the long-term, it creates a vicious cycle, eventually forcing the local industry to just put up more beach parasols and increase the price of luwei (braised meat and vegetables).

No matter what happens, Kenting as a tourist attraction will still be the butt of the industry’s jokes.

To emphasize this point, here is an example that almost all visitors will have come across: jet-skis. These are an easy way of making money when deployed in combination with banana boats. The work is relaxed, and the cost of training is low. Most importantly, tourists love them. Besides this, jet-skis can also be used to get around, transport goods, and save lives. They are a godsend for local villagers, who therefore treasure them dearly.

However, nothing in the world is everlasting. In the long-term, the lack of regulations and control on the size of jet-skis have seen problems arise, including noise and oil pollution and damage to the land and ecology. These all add up and affect the economic performance of this scenic spot.

With that said, the most serious problem is the chaos caused to other seafarers.

Jet-skis in Kenting often cross ship lanes, cruise around crowds, and even speed off into protected ecological reserves. These actions are also potential threats to anyone doing water sports such as snorkelers, free divers, and scuba divers – especially when they surface, where they are often worried that their heads will get smashed in by passing speedboats, something that would of course greatly reduce the amount of fun being had. Therefore, these divers, who are considered big spenders for the water sports industry, are now abandoning Kenting when planning their diving destinations, choosing instead to travel to outlying islands where there are no jet-skis, or more often, spending a little more money to dive in foreign locations.

Due to the absence of regulations, the high recreational value and convenience of jet-skis have caused too many negative effects, which have now led to a decline in the region’s competitiveness. At this current point, before the planned rejuvenation of the area, this “non-sustainable tourism” model seems to be rife across the whole of Pingtung. This is because the region is plagued with incompetent governance and has locals with a short-sighted outlook on business.

Sustainability: What is it and can it save Kenting?

The local government, industry and academics have worked together to promote eco-tourism and the local community in Kenting for many years, but how effective has it been? Have the promoted Kenting sights – such as Shuiwaku, Longshui Village, Longkeng, Alanyi historic trail, ecological tours and intertidal zones – broken the mold and become the new pioneers for Kenting tourism? Have they successfully refreshed the image of the Hengchun Peninsula by replacing the old guard made up of Kenting soared sada people, go-karting, 3-in-1 water sports experiences, Kenting night market, EDM raves and expensive luwei?

Unfortunately, even though these campaigns have successfully established niche markets, they have not helped change the wider economic environment. This is because there are three flaws in the current implementation: Regional planning, industry regulations and user experience.

The first two are overall issues, so we’ll have to discuss them another time. Today, we’ll just focus on the frontline, user experience.

To be blunt, “sustainable tourism” in most cases has been soaring through the stratosphere for too long, which has led to over-confidence in the concept. Let’s say that mass tourism such as jet-skis sacrifices sustainability in order to offer a great user experience, then the problem with niche, sustainable, ecological and cultural communal tourism is that they sacrifice user experience for moral values.

For most people, they don’t offer enough fun, and if it’s not fun, then no one will care if you have moral values or not.

Many businesses have realized how important user experience is. They know that they can’t preach to tourists, so all they can do is make sure they are happy, but they don't want to admit that the core value for most people is “fun.” First you have to satisfy those core values, and only then might there be space where added value in the form of “education” can exist.

It is only after people have an unforgettable experience that they will even consider thinking about the ethical values of their experience, and this active reminiscence reaches far deeper than any force-fed moral guilt. People will not change their views until they have had personal experiences of their own.

Credit: CNA

Kenting’s secret weapon: Look to Little Liuqiu?

Let’s imagine a first-time tourist who has not researched anything about the turtle sanctuary of Little Liuqiu – a small island just off the coast of Donggang in Pingtung County – but decides to go anyway. How does the local industry make him care about the turtles; what are the most effective actions? How about telling a turtle’s life story using picture books, information pamphlets, exhibitions, performances, advertisement, or souvenirs...?

The answer is actually very simple: Just drag him into the sea, find a large turtle, allow the tourist to swim close to it, take a few beautiful photos, point them in the right direction and then let the tourist go off and educate themselves.

These experiences will brew in each tourist’s mind, and even if a few years pass, as soon as a tourist sees their photos again, they will immediately recall the cold salty waters, the sting of the jellyfish, the sound of fizzing from the crashing waves, and the image of giant human sized turtles eating algae... In that instant, with no distractions from their cell or daily routines, their mind, body and soul can focus on this encounter, creating an even deeper imprinted in their memory by producing an emotional connection to the experience.

This type of intense user experience works on the same principle as the 3-in-1 jet-ski activity, with the only difference being that swimming with the turtles of Little Liuqiu can achieve environmental sustainability. It may surprise you, but most people within watersport circles have never received any environmental education. However, they generally regard the marine ecology as their backyard as they have formed their moral values through their experiences in the open waters. Just imagine seeing a turtle every day and getting to know it so well that you can pick it out from a bale. You will naturally start to care about whether it is eating well or if it is being treated badly.

Therefore, by offering tourists the experience of swimming with turtles, Little Liuqiu’s tourism has gone through the roof, whereas Kenting, with its relatively poor tourist experiences, has slumped to the ground. If we remove the turtle tourism from Little Liuqiu’s arsenal, what is left of the nature tourism is probably a thousand times worse than Kenting’s, so you have to ask the question, where exactly have Kenting’s “turtles” gone?

Read Next: Trouble in Paradise as Kenting Suffers from Tourism Decline

This article first appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens and can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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