Sun, Dec 02, 2001 - Page 8 News List

Gambling on tourism in Penghu

With a climate that keeps winter tourists away and a severely damaged fishing industry, Penghu must do something to regain its economic footing. Is legalizing gambling the answer?

By Vico Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fishing boats ply the waters off Penghu. Despite past overfishing which has depleted stocks, many Penghu residents still rely on the industry to make a living.

PHOTO: DAVID VAN DER VEEN, TAIPEI TIMES

Penghu is a favorite summer tourist destination which attracts thousands of weekenders with its brisk sea breezes and magnificent scenery. When the autumn gales begin to blow in October, however, the archipelago becomes deserted until April, when warmer weather seems to thaw the local tourism industry.

The islands' climate is also a curse on its economy, as it is adverse to agriculture, and its isolated location rules out large-scale manufacturing development. Generations of Penghu residents have made their living from the sea, but over-fishing has severely depleted stocks and damaged the industry.

As a result, tourism has become the only way out of economic hardship. But for a county with a thinning population, which, according to the Penghu County government, receives 95 percent of its annual budget from central government subsidies, a solution is urgently needed that will boost tourist numbers throughout the year.

Several projects aimed at attracting tourists in winter have been tried with only limited success. Others are in the works.

One such plan involves a draft law, which has passed its three readings before being passed in the Legislative Yuan, that would legalize gambling on Taiwan's outlying islands. If made into law, it is expected to lead to the construction of international holiday resorts where tourists can gamble. The prospect has led some to question the viability of developing large-scale tourism projects and raised moral questions about gambling. There are others who see casinos as Penghu's last chance at survival.

The popularity of tourism in Penghu is largely a result of government promotion. Ten years ago, the Taiwan government established the Penghu National Scenic Area Administration Office to promote the islands. The archipelago's 300km coastline has since become its main attraction. It offers a range of activities from parasailing and jetskiing to boating and snorkeling.

Penghu's location also lures over 200 species of migratory birds, making it an important spot for Asia's birdwatchers.

The islands, named the Pescadores by the Portuguese, were also among the first in the region to be developed, and have a rich cultural heritage dating as far back as the Ming dynasty.

Though Penghu is small enough to see in a couple of days, it boasts 47 temples open to visitors. Tianhou Temple (天后宮), the oldest temple in Taiwan, is among them.

The variety of activities the islands can provide draws up to 6,000 visitors per day in summer. That number drops with each mark on the thermometer.

To make tourism a year-round business, the Penghu County government has come up with events aimed at attracting tourists in winter. For the past three Novembers, the Cobia Sailboat Art Festival has been held with growing success. The number of tourists for the festival reached 2,000 this year, almost half of which came from abroad. To promote all aspects of tourism in Penghu, the event combined a concert by the Ju Zung-chieng Percussion Group (朱宗慶打擊樂團), a fishing tour and visits to coral reefs and the Penghu Aquarium.

To try to pull in the crowds, the county's tourism bureau promoted the event on several sports channels and the BBC, as well as through windsurfing clubs worldwide.

By contrast, the first International Earth Art Festival, which started on Nov. 10 on the island of Hsiyu, has received little media attention and attracted a much smaller audience than the sailboat art festival.

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