The Good, the Bad and the Adaptive: Resilient Local Solutions to Tourism-Related System Shifts in Eastern Rural Taiwan

Written by Paulina G. Karimova and Kuang-Chung Lee.

Image credit: Hualien, Taiwan by Nina R/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Discussion of resilience and adaptive capacity of Taiwan’s scenic rural areas has never been more pertinent than at the times of COVID-19. Over 2020-2021, these two seemingly academic terms have promptly secured their spot in local vocabulary (as 韌性 and 調適能力) and became an intrinsic part of hands-on local solutions.

Tourism and socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes

Eastern Taiwan – Hualien and Taitung counties – is famous for its postcard-perfect natural beauty and rich Indigenous culture. Being the least industrially developed part of the Island, the east coast is often dubbed as “the last pure land.” This is because it boasts the country’s highest percentage of organically farmed soil and its cleanest air and water. Small-scale agriculture and community-based fisheries are an indispensable part of local livelihoods and culture. Together they shape scenic socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes (SEPLS) characteristic of the area.

Construction of the Coastal Highway 11 has made the beauty of eastern coastal SEPLS accessible to many city dwellers. Therefore, it is of no surprise that tourism (agricultural, tribal, experience, marine tourism, ecotourism, geotourism, etc.) has become essential for local livelihoods over the years. In addition, tourism-related activities such as community-based environmental interpretation tours, diving, snorkelling, experiential farming, Indigenous arts and culinary workshops bring direct revenues to SEPLS communities and support other local businesses (shops, restaurants, homestays, and vehicles rentals).

Photo 1. Coastal Highway 11 running alongside terraced rice paddy fields of Xinshe SEPLS, Hualien County. Photo source: authors

Community-based tourism is seen, by the young people in particular, as a more direct (and somewhat more exciting) source of income than agriculture and fisheries. Reliance on tourism, however, increases SEPLS’ vulnerability to external factors – to the state of natural resources (e.g., exposure to nature- and human-induced stresses) and regularity of tourist flows (e.g., too many or too few tourists).

In this article, we discuss two phases of tourism-related system shifts experienced by eastern coastal SEPLS since the rise of COVID-19: 1) 2020-early 2021 phase (open, with an inflow of domestic tourism) and 2) May-July 2021 (now) phase (closed, with restrictions on tourism activities). We provide our insight on some of the Good, the Bad and the Adaptive of each phase. Resilient local solutions of communities we have had the privilege to work with as a part of Taiwan Partnership for the Satoyama Initiative (TPSI) network are the source of inspiration for this Insight.

Phase I: 2020-early 2021

Restrictions on international travel to and from Taiwan were announced on March 19th, 2020. However, by the summertime last year, with the COVID-19 situation well under control, domestic tourism was rising. As a result, from a popular sightseeing destination with somewhat more cars on weekends than on workdays, the Coastal Highway 11 transformed into a busy “tourist pipeline” with long traffic jams and imposed traffic control.

The Good. Domestic tourism inflow brought a significant boost to coastal SEPLS economies. Hot summer season was apt for opening road stalls with local snacks and refreshing beverages. In addition, the locals saw increased tourism exposure as an opportunity to promote their culture and products during Indigenous Harvest Festivals. Inadvertently, the “snapshot tourism” (打卡旅遊), as it is known in Taiwan, created a “snowball” effect of advertising coastal SEPLS as attractive destinations to visit.

The Bad. As one may imagine, the domestic tourism boom pushed to the upper limit environmental carrying capacity of coastal SEPLS. Unfortunately, “snapshot tourism” quickly became an antonym to sustainable tourism – “not in my selfie picture, not my business.” Single-use habits of city dwellers fuelled by the prevalence of convenience shops around the Island have paid their inconvenient tribute to litter beaches and scenic farmlands. PET bottles, plastic bags and straws, sanitary products, and even human waste emerged as prevalent scenic features of the “the last pure land.”

Photo 2. The unpleasant realities of “snapshot tourism”, Coastal Highway 11 near Jici Village, Hualien County. Photo source: authors

SEPLS residents openly voiced their complaints on social media platforms, asking for respect for their culture and environment. For example, the Kavalan Paterungan tribe (Xinshe Village, Hualien County) was disheartened to see tourists trampling on and using chemical DEET mosquito sprays in their organic terraced rice paddy fields. Amis Makotaay tribe (Gangkou Village, Hualien County) requested female visitors to refrain from entering traditional fishing grounds during the Ocean Festival – a male-only event. The Orchid Island (Taitung County) was faced with severe coral reef devastation caused both by the physical damage from poorly supervised diving activities and the use of SPF sunscreen lotions. In addition to the above, all coastal SEPLS experienced heightened air and noise pollution rates and exacerbated road safety issues. Needless to say, mass tourism was perceived by many residents, especially the elderly, as an infringement on their personal space and ways of life.

The Adaptive. However, the extent of the many Bads did not discourage SEPLS communities from searching for resilient local solutions. For example, Xinshe villagers found a 3-in-1 solution combining environmental protection, eco-agricultural education, and cultural promotion. With support from the government-funded project, they fenced off and labelled organic rice paddy fields and set up a photo exhibition dedicated to Kavalan history and culture. It has since been gladly welcomed by both the locals and the visitors.

Amis Makotaay tribe responded to tourism pressures by convening tribal council meetings, voting favouring designating “no entry” zones for tourists and setting up relevant monitoring and management mechanisms. Tourism enterprises on Orchid Island, such as homestays and diving operators, stepped up their marine environmental education component for the visitors.

Phase II: May-July 2021 (now)

Following the outbreak of domestic cases of COVID-19, the Level 3 nationwide restrictions (effective from May 19th, 2021) put all domestic tourism activities on hold.

The Bad. The negative impacts of restricted tourism inflow have been particularly hard felt by the local businesses solely dependent on tourism – small retail shops, homestays, and tour operators. Furthermore, rice marketing has become more difficult as the schools (with their daily school lunches) closed earlier for summer vacation. There have also been no tourists to sell the product to, and farmers’ markets and agri-food exhibition stalls have all been suspended. In-person experiential farming activities and workshops had to be cancelled by many SEPLS communities as well.

The Good. As one of our local partners noted with a smile, “All you need is to live long enough to experience all kinds of challenges.” Unlike what we might have expected, many SEPLS communities do see a bright side to the current situation. Most importantly, now nature can get some rest. The locals have observed how, over the past two months, with all pollution sources being brought to a minimum, the natural state of their environment has significantly improved. Another exciting Good of this phase is the long-awaited return of migrant youth to rapidly ageing and depopulated SEPLS. Prompted by the loss of jobs in the cities or the urge to retreat to the safety of rural areas, many young people are now coming home.

The Adaptive. In many ways, it has been the time for self-reflection, building connections and “going inwards” in search of new livelihood options within changed circumstances. Many coastal SEPLS communities have turned their full attention to production activities. It has strengthened their self-sufficiency and enhanced their physical, emotional, and spiritual connection to the land and the ocean. For some SEPLS, these months have been an opportunity to document and transfer the rapidly disappearing traditional ecological knowledge from the elderly to the youth.

Notably, smart solutions have been linked to the use of technology and digital skills of SEPLS youth. For example, online and farm-to-client marketing, YouTube, and Facebook promotion videos of SEPLS produce and attractions, Google Meet tribal and community meetings – these resilient new approaches have not only helped to sustain local livelihoods during Level 3 but even boosted monthly incomes in some villages.

Photo 3. Living in harmony with nature: eco-friendly local products of the Amis Dipit tribe, Xinshe Village, Hualien County. Photo source: Hanna Deng

There is always something good (and something adaptive) in every bad

Both the rapid increase and suspension of domestic tourism have been a blessing and a curse to the eastern coastal SEPLS. However, we have observed that focusing on the Adaptive rather than just on the Good or the Bad has played a significant role in a solution-oriented positive thinking approach of SEPLS communities.

Tourism-related system shifts over the 1.5 years of COVID-19 have shed new and very realistic light on the meaning of resilience in rural areas. Diversity of SEPLS resources (natural, cultural, production, human, knowledge, skills, etc.), community cohesion, the wisdom of inward reflection, and openness to embracing the unknown – all are the essential building blocks of resilient local solutions.

This year (2021), TPSI is conducting a series of community-based resilience assessment workshops to further learn about the Good, the Bad and the Adaptive of numerous SEPLS around Taiwan. The lessons learned from this unique experience are waiting to be shared in the Insights to come.

Photo 4: Community-based resilience assessment workshops in Xinshe SEPLS. Photo: authors

Paulina G. Karimova isPhD Candidate with a master’s in environmental science. She is also a research assistant at the Landscape Conservation and Community Participation laboratory, National Dong Hwa University (NDHU), Taiwan.

Kuang-Chung Lee, Professor, PhD in Geography, supervisor of the Landscape Conservation and Community Participation laboratory, National Dong Hwa University (NDHU), Taiwan.

This article was published as part of a July 2021 special issue on Pandemic, Tourism & Environment. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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