Mass Tourism During The Covid-19 Pandemic: When The Tao/Yami People Face Sanitary And Environmental Crises

Written by Julien Laporte.

Image credit: Julien Laporte

Following the closing of Taiwan international borders in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tao people have seen an unexpectedly high number of visitors on their territory. Since 2020, they have been experiencing the consequences of that overtourism that calls for respectful and sustainable tourism.

Pongso no Tao, which means “the Island of People” in Tao language, is a 45 square kilometre archipelago located off the southeastern coast of Taiwan. This island is inhabited by 5 000 people called the Tao (Yami), an indigenous community whose mother tongue, ciriciring no tao, belongs to the Austronesian language family. Living in six different villages, most of the community members make their living from fishing, agriculture and tourism activities.

Since the 1970s, the Tao people have been fighting against environmental injustices. With the coercive implementation of nuclear waste deposits on their territory that is still profoundly affecting their “being-in-the-ocean”, Tao people have been suffering from the emergence of new diseases and the disappearance of several marine species. Even if they have constantly expressed their concerns about the leaking of toxic materials on their island, their testimonies and calls have gone unheard. More recently, with the Covid-19 pandemic affecting the entire world, Taiwan decided to close its international borders, provoking waves of national tourism in the most highly praised destinations, such as Pongso no Tao. Famous for its snorkelling and scuba diving sites, the island has been invaded by more than 220 000 tourists between February and July 2020, almost twice as many as the last ten years. With such massive tourism, the locals have been witnessing drastic changes in their environment, including the bleaching of corals and the significant accumulation of plastic waste, both pointing out the lack of efficient strategies to manage sustainable tourism.

Scientists attribute the bleaching of corals to three main factors: temperature anomalies, the chemical compoundsin sunscreen products, and domestic wastewaters’ disposal in the ocean. In 2020 the bleaching of corals in Pongso no Tao was extremely intense, which made the scientists worried about the future of marine fauna and flora. For the locals -who possess strong marine ecological knowledge and awareness – this bleaching is a natural response to seasonal changes. Some elders told me that corals are like trees; in autumn, the leaves fall in the same way that the corals bleach. In a couple of months, they are expecting to revert to their original state.

Overtourism is often associated with large quantities of plastic waste. With two tons of garbage produced every single day, for 1 500 tons a year that cannot be treated or processed because of the absence of proper equipment and funds, the garbage hill grows bigger and bigger. Even though the government has called on tourists to take a bag of empty plastic bottles back to Taiwan to reduce the amount of waste on the island, it is far from being enough to get rid of the waves of garbage that are literally covering Tao people’s territory. Not to mention the many new concrete hostels emerging from the ground to meet tourism demand that participates in the environment decay. These houses do not have the proper equipment necessary to deal with so many people. Considering the remarkably fast development of tourism on the island, it is not surprising that several villages, especially on the east coast, are facing a water shortage. Also, the lack of wastewaters disposals system forces the locals to discharge these uncleaned waters into the sea.

Wooden boats protected from tourists with fences. Image credit: Julien Laporte, December 2018.

Another aspect that should be considered with this mass tourism is the difficulty for Tao people to protect their cultural practices and “beings-in-the-ocean” from the non-locals behaviours and actions. In Tao onto-cosmological conceptions, many prohibitions need to be respected, especially during the flying fish season. To give only a few, non-Tao people cannot touch the wooden boats used during the flying fish season. It is forbidden to take pictures of flying fish hanging on the rack or practice spearfishing during this period. In 2016, when some Taiwanese decided to offer jets skis rental to the tourists during the Flying fish season, this decision undoubtedly created tensions and heated debates with the fishers who accused them of disrupting the fish.

For the Tao people, the Covid-19 pandemic is a synonym for ‘overtourism’, which is considered a blessing and a curse. Even if many people financially benefit from these activities, they must deal with the dramatic consequences of uncontrolled tourism and the ecological crises that are on the verge of disturbing their connection with the environment. The Tao people are people of the ocean. They live with and for the ocean and its non-human beings. In their “being-in-the-ocean”, the land, the mountains, and the sea are all intertwined, creating a complex network where everything that happens on the land affects the sea and vice versa. By disturbing the equilibrium that exists between the Tao and their marine environment, that mass tourism threatens Tao’s identity that is inseparable from the watery space. One hopes that locals manage to protect their environment, culture, practices, and conceptions connected to the marine world.

Very few articles point out the mass tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic, primarily because in most countries, the opposite happened: many communities have witnessed the disappearance of tourism, causing significant financial issues. The three 250-people cruise ships that arrive daily at Pongso no Tao bring tourists who do not necessarily understand that this is the Tao’s territory, even though the locals persistently urge the tourists to pay attention to the cultural restrictions. There is a need for respectful and sustainable tourism, which may be challenging to reach without restricting the visitor number.

Julien Laporte is a PhD student in Social and Political Sciences at the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium. His research interests concern the ontological entanglements between humans and marine non-humans, as well as the environmental issues affecting the indigenous communities in Taiwan.

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan

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