Written by Viola van Onselen.
Tourism can significantly burden the natural environment, such as developing hotels or campsites in fragile ecosystems, pollution, or noise disturbance. The fact that tourism leads to environmental degradation has led to sustainable or eco-tourism, a concept that aims to minimise the impact on the natural environment and maintain tourism over a long period in one area while educating tourists and benefitting the social, economic and natural environment.
While the world has been on hold due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, domestic tourism takes a turn. Many tourists visit tourism hotspots in their own country, which was also happening in Taiwan before the semi-lockdown started in mid-May. The relationship between tourism and the natural environment is essential for the future of the natural environment, especially in this time of global pandemic when more people venture out into less crowded natural areas, it becomes increasingly challenging to find a balance between tourism and nature conservation. An example of an increasing environmental footprint of tourism since the start of the pandemic is the rise in facemask pollution or over-tourism at specific sites. Taiwan is currently in a semi-lock down, and most trails and beaches are closed to tourists, but if this lockdown ends, many people will venture outside again and visit tourist spots around the island. It is essential to understand the negative impacts of tourism, but it is equally important to address these issues. Below is an overview of different destinations in Taiwan dealing with an increasing tourism pressure, where solutions are initiated by different stakeholders and local residents on the islands of Taiwan, the coastal zone, and mountain environments.
The Islands of Taiwan:
The islands of Taiwan are very diverse and can support many kinds of tourism; relaxing, scuba diving, cultural, culinary, wildlife etc. Unfortunately, the islands attract many tourists, especially since the global pandemic; Green Island and Orchid Island had a massive surge in domestic tourists. These increasing numbers can put a strain on natural resources and local communities. Waste management and pollution, wastewater management, and wildlife disturbance are some of the islands’ issues. To reduce the impact of tourism, there are several initiatives from local island residents to make tourism more sustainable.
For example, on the beaches of Green Island, the increasing pollution causes species like hermit crabs to use pieces of garbage as their housing (as shown in picture 1). These crabs are constantly outgrowing and replacing their shells, and because of beach litter and the fact that many tourists collect shells on the beach, hermit crabs fail to find adequate housing. Therefore, a local Initiative has been set up to create an educational experience for tourists to prepare natural shells for hermit crabs on Green Island. Another project on this island focuses on reducing plastic bottles (from bottled water) by making drinking water available at several spots around the island, which travellers will access to collect free drinking water.
Orchid Island is also dealing with drastically increasing amounts of waste due to tourism. Many people on the island see the benefits of tourism and point out that the influx of tourists has caused environmental issues. The island used to be self-sufficient for ages but becomes more and more dependent on external products with the increasing tourism numbers, which challenges the capacity of resources and infrastructure on the island. The waste disposal system on the island cannot deal with the increasing amount of garbage that the influx of people causes. This raises questions about the number of people visiting the island and proper waste disposal, collection, processing, and responsibilities. By introducing ways to recycle waste or stimulate more sustainable packaging, the island is working on a solution. Other initiatives, such as using renewable energy resources, introducing electric scooters, or requiring visitors to take their trash (locals are now calling on tourists to at least ‘carry one more kilogram’ from the island), are solutions for dealing with this issue. In addition, visitors could, for instance, pay a fee when visiting the island to fund the waste disposal. A project called Kasiboan, (lit. in the local Tao language ‘place to gather garbage’) aims at educating people about the environmental issues on the island. The project is now in a local museum demonstrating innovative ways to cut down on electrical power usage using “bottle ventilation” and green roofs for heat reduction. Kasiboan also hosts activities that promote sustainable tourism and encourage tourists to protect the island’s environment.
The island of Xiaoliuqiu is a popular spot for spotting green sea turtles, and many tourists visit over the weekend since it is easily accessible from Kaohsiung. Unfortunately, this small island has suffered from a recent oil spill resulting from a pipeline breach offshore of Kaohsiung city. The oil has polluted the corals, rocky beaches around the island, and fewer turtles after the spill. In addition, there are fears that the oil could inflict long-term damage to the coral reef and sea turtle habitat. Therefore, when snorkelling, tourists should not disturb the sea turtles and try to avoid using sunscreen and deodorant or other oily/chemical substances that might pollute the water. This is pointed out on signs and famous snorkelling spots on the island, educating visitors about sunscreen use and warning them for fines upon touching these endangered creatures. The situation could be improved, however, if these regulations were more actively enforced.
The concept of sustainable tourism is still developing in Taiwan. Thus, it is essential to keep in mind the issues mentioned above when visiting the islands. This means finding ways to help reduce waste, such as bringing your own environmentally friendly cup for coffee or a much-needed bubble tea and reducing takeout and eating at local restaurants. It also means taking your trash off the island will help to reduce waste generation and reduce the environmental footprints on the islands.
Forested mountain landscapes dominate Taiwan, and mountains cover approximately two-thirds of the total area of the main island. Furthermore, the Taiwanese hills face overdevelopment due to agricultural, residential, industrial, and recreational uses. Different types of pollution have led to the degradation of ecosystems in midstream and downstream catchment areas. For example, camping is becoming more popular in Taiwan, especially in the attractive mountain landscapes relatively close to the major cities. These environments provide the ultimate weekend getaway, and campsites have drastically increased over the last few years. The increasing development of campsites, facilities and tourism attractions has led to deforestation of vast parts of the mountain forests, which leads to increased erosion and loss of biodiversity. Other pressures on the environment related to increased mountain tourism are waste, water pollution and land-use changes. To reduce the harmful impacts on the environment, tourists can try to limit their water usage when camping, bring biodegradable products like soap and sunscreen and bring back or reduce their garbage as much as possible.
To enter most high mountain environments, permits are required to keep visitors at a manageable level and avoid the accumulation of refuse. There is more attention for ecological protection in the national parks of Taiwan. For example, during February, all Yushan national parks are closed for environmental recovery, and the visitors of the national parks need to follow the ‘Leave No Trace Principles’ and environmental education programs are expanded for the public about environmental issues.
The Coastal Zone:
Taiwan is surrounded by more than 1500 km of coastline. Even though more than half of the coastline has been constructed, the coastal areas still offer many popular tourist destinations. Additionally, to enhance ecosystem services, biodiversity, coastal ecosystems’ and coastal protection functions, sustainable solutions are brought forward under the ‘Taiwan Coastal Zone Management Act’ established in 2015. But so far, sustainable tourism has not developed much for these coastal environments, and most beaches are not well-managed. Washed up waste is still a significant issue on many beaches in Taiwan, including dune landfills, illegally dumped waste, and litter from recreational activities (see picture 1). A study into the composition of marine debris in northern Taiwan pointed out that most debris originated from recreational activities.
Fortunately, many initiatives address this kind of pollution, such as local activists’ actions and foreign volunteers often host beach clean-up events around Taiwan. These initiatives will help increase awareness of Taiwan’s environmental problems and help make beaches a cleaner environment.
Taiwan is known for its diverse landscapes and high biodiversity, but increased tourism greatly pressures the environment. Luckily, small actions by tourists can reduce the environmental footprint. To spark this, information provision at popular tourism sites to point out biodiversity richness, ecosystem values, and ecological services to people is essential for tourists to develop more sustainable behaviour. Maintaining the richness and beauty of Taiwan’s natural environments is a challenging task that will require everyone’s cooperation, so that future generations can still enjoy Taiwan and its remarkable landscapes.
Viola van Onselen is a PhD candidate in the Geography Department at the National Taiwan Normal University.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Pandemic, Tourism & Environment.