It was a heartwarming tale when Taichung’s colorful Rainbow Village shot to international fame several years ago, and how an old man’s whimsical murals saved his village from demolition and made it one of the two Taiwanese destinations listed in Lonely Planet’s Secret Marvels of the World guidebook in 2017.
Just a few years later, it seems like every county has at least a few “painted villages” and similar approaches are used too often to turn otherwise well-preserved historic locations into tacky backdrops for selfies, retaining little of their original charm.
TVBS in December last year reported that 80 painted villages have popped up across Taiwan just in the past three years.
Yunlin County Cultural Affairs Department Director Lin Meng-yi (林孟儀) told reporters that the county would stop sponsoring new mural villages due to there being too many of them and the villages having little to do with local culture.
The growing number of these villages points to a lack of creativity in promoting and preserving Taiwan’s tourism sites, preferring style and immediate profit over substance, while blindly copying what seems to work in other places.
Selfie-driven tourism does have its merits, but when overdone, it becomes repetitive and unsustainable, as there is little incentive for visitors to return.
It also does not appeal much to foreigners in general and turns away domestic tourists who want to learn about local history and culture; these are the ones who would stay a day or two instead of leaving as soon as uploading their selfies on Instagram.
The problem was highlighted in a National Audit Report published last week, which criticized a similar copycat behavior regarding skywalks and suspension bridges, revealing that more than NT$600 million (US$19.04 million) went into building 13 such structures across Taiwan in the past 12 years.
The number of visitors to these walkways has been dropping sharply, and the central and local government must spend taxpayer’s money to maintain them, leading to financial losses in some cases.
The same goes for the nation’s tragic glass churches: After the initial craze, Chiayi County’s NT$23.33 million High-Heel Wedding Church has seen its visitor numbers drop by more than 35 percent from 2016.
The audit reiterated what has been plaguing the tourism industry for years, urging the government to “consider the unique characteristics of the local culture and designate the type and location of the facility accordingly to prevent different regions from building too many of the same kinds of facilities.”
The problem was brought up in a Taipei Times report on Monday about the nation’s chance to capitalize on tensions between South Korea and Japan, and attract more visitors from both countries.
However, an unnamed travel agent said that “over the past few years Taiwan’s tourism market has not changed,” with no new attractions being built that can rival existing hotspots such as the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101.
Unfortunately, that seems to ring true. While there has been a growing appreciation and focus on Taiwan’s rich regional cultural heritage, there are still too many misguided projects.
Taiwan has much to offer as it is, and due to its complicated history there is still much hidden potential that requires a bit of digging or thinking outside the box.
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