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‘Everyone is too scared to come’: Taiwan’s earthquake deals a blow to top tourism hotspot

As a bed and breakfast owner in Taiwan’s Hualien County, Chen Rei-jia was used to the minor tremors that sometimes disturbed her work. But this time, something felt different.

“The shaking grew stronger and lasted longer, and as rescue vehicles arrived, I became frightened,” she said. “We heard rocks falling everywhere and saw smoke and dust all around. There were massive landslides in front and behind us.”

Emerging from her house to survey the damage, Chen had just survived the 7.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Taiwan on April 3 — the largest tremblor to rock the island in 25 years.

“I’ve never experienced such a strong earthquake in my life. It was truly terrifying,” the 60-year-old said.

Chen Rei-jia, a bed and breakfast owner in Hualien County, Taiwan.

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

Now, survivors like Chen are facing a new challenge. Tourists have canceled their trips en masse, and tour groups have disappeared.

For many residents of Hualien, which relies on tourism for 70% of its economy, the situation is quickly becoming an existential threat.

“It’s dire; there are no tourists,” said Chen. “Everyone is too scared to come.”

Empty restaurants and cancelled bookings

The brunt of the earthquake’s damage occured in Hualien County, which attracts millions of visitors per year to the towering peaks and waterfalls of its main draw, Taroko Gorge.

But now the previously packed mountain roads and walking paths to the gorge are now blocked with rubble, and vast swaths of Taroko National Park remain closed.

A woman named Lai, who owns a restaurant near the entrance to the gorge, said her once full restaurant now sits empty. 

“We really hope the national park can reopen, but if it doesn’t, there’s nothing we can do,” she said. “It feels like there’s no end in sight.”

Lai owns a restaurant near Taroko Gorge. “It feels like there’s no end in sight.”

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

Damage to the area also presents a problem for local tour guides like Liang Shiun-chu.

“Our usual tour package focuses on Taroko,” he explained. “Since the earthquake, all our bookings were canceled.”

The number of visits to Hualien’s scenic spots have dropped by 85% since last year, according to local officials. Liang explained that some guides like him now work as taxi drivers and are finding it hard to make ends meet.

Tour guide Liang Shiun-chu is driving a taxi to make ends meet. “Since the earthquake, all our bookings were canceled.”

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

“Business is down to 30%-50% of what it used to be,” he said. “Many friends have left Hualien to work elsewhere because it’s very tough for our industry here. I’ve considered moving to another county too.”

These trends are reflected across different tourism sectors, with the Hualien Hotel Association reporting that post-quake occupancy levels fell to just 5% — an observation echoed by Howard Yeh, the manager of a local hostel.   

Howard Yeh, the manager of a local hostel. “We just have to hold on and keep waiting.”

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

“Around 90% of foreign visitors to Hualien come specifically for Taroko Gorge. With this key attraction temporarily closed, Hualien loses much of its appeal for tourists,” he said. “We just have to hold on and keep waiting.”

Despite the hopes of Hualien’s residents, local officials estimate that a return to pre-quake tourism levels could take years.

“It might take five to 10 years for full recovery,” Chang Chih-hsiang, director general of Hualien’s tourism department, told CNBC Travel.

Difficulty getting in

To speed up the recovery process, Taiwan’s local and national governments have introduced programs to support local businesses and encourage visitors to return. The government is guaranteeing loans and subsidizing interest rates for local businesses who need loans.  

From July, visitors to Hualien County will also be eligible to receive up to $1,000 New Taiwan dollars ($31) in accommodation subsidies, with tour agencies receiving up to NT$20,000 ($618).

Chang Chih-hsiang, head of Hualien’s tourism office, estimates the area’s tourism industry could take five to 10 years to fully recover.

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

Despite this, locals worry these measures may not be enough. Stephanie Zhang, the head of the Hualien Hotel Association, said her organization predicts, in a best-case scenario, that hotel occupancy levels will return to 40-50% this summer.

Continuing news coverage about the quake, social media clips of collapsed buildings and the some 1,500 aftershocks that have hit Taiwan since the initial quake haven’t helped restore traveler confidence.

Even if visitors wanted to visit Hualien, accessing the county is more difficult than before. Some 70% of tourists reach Hualien from northern Taiwan, explained Chang but the quake damaged the road that connects the city to Taipei.

The road still functions at specific times of day, and the county is still accessible via train and plane, but the damage has taken a toll.

Hualien’s tourism office is working to restore the city and promote Hualien as a safe tourist destination, said Chen.

“If we do not reverse this trend and rebuild tourists’ confidence in Hualien, the loss is estimated to be around NT$15 billion by the end of the year,” he said.

Wide repercussions

The effects of the earthquake have reverberated far beyond Hualien’s tourism sector. “Tourism is the lifeblood of Hualien,” explained Chang.

When the tourism industry suffers, so does the rest of the region.

Markets, which usually serve locals, are suffering because locals aren’t making money, explained a market vendor Cheng Wen-zhong. “If tourists don’t come, our business suffers significantly.” Lin Ya-mi, a fish vendor at the town’s wet market, said business had dropped by two-thirds.

Lin Ya-mi, a fish vendor at a Hualien wet market.

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

Despite that, Hualien’s residents hope that tourists will soon come back, so that life can return to normal.

Standing in her empty restaurant at the entrance to Taroko Gorge, Lai Sui-er explained that she still has faith in the future.

“If things don’t work out here, we’ll look elsewhere. And if that still doesn’t work, we’ll find jobs. No matter how much we earn, as long as we can make a living, we can manage by being frugal,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

“There is hope,” she said. “We will find a way.”


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