Approximately 8km north of the Miramar Resort Village, the daily, springtime coach-jams at Water Running Up, a geographical-oddity-turned-tourist-trap, are evidence that Taiwan is seeing growing numbers of visitors. The influx has been fueled in part by a relaxation on travel restrictions on visitors from China and government figures prove that tourism is booming: In 2007, 3.7 million tourists visited the nation. By 2010, that number had risen to 4.3 million and in 2011 it hit the 6 million mark.
Jessica Wu (吳金曄), 31, a member of Taitung’s Tourism Department — and Taiwan’s only female hot-air balloon pilot — remains convinced that increased numbers of visitors could spell good times for Taitung County. Wu, who is part of the drive to put the county on the tourism map, last year helped steer the second hugely successful Taitung Hot Air Balloon Festival.
“We attracted 880,000 people last year which brought in an additional NT$200 million to Taitung’s economy.”
However, Wu concedes that there is a balancing act between staging events which will bring greater numbers of tourists, while the region’s infrastructure strains under the weight. “Our priority is to now bolster transport, but we have a limited budget for that.”
Da Yuang (大苑, real name 黃苑蓉), a 30-year-old graduate student and a project leader with the Taiwan Environmental Information Association (TEIA, 台灣環境資訊協會), says all facets of the construction process have to be taken into consideration.
“If we really want more tourists to come to Taitung then we must ask if Taitung is ready for them. The basic infrastructure is not adequate. For example, garbage collection, water treatment [and] traffic management,” she says as she drinks black tea in a cafe.
Yuang, who is part of the Anti, Anti, Anti (反反反行動聯盟) movement, a collective of environmental groups opposed to the hotel, was first alerted to the environmental impact of the complex while volunteering on a coral reef-checking project in Taitung. She joined the group to “help build connections with Taipei.”
“A lot of Anti, Anti, Anti [members] are concerned that Dulan Point will be developed next if the Miramar Hotel finally goes ahead and opens its doors. It’s the first domino,” says Yuang. Dulan (都蘭) Point is where artist Chen Ming-tsai (陳明才) leaped to his death in 2003 to protest tourism-orientated development in the region and which local Amis tribes regard as a sacred site.
Chang Yi-chuan (張益銓), a 26-year-old architect, agrees with Yuang. Chang’s family is from Taitung and the university graduate is now volunteering in the county while reconnecting with his ancestral roots.
“I think Taitung, for example Dulan, has a strong lifestyle and I think this is the main value of this place,” he says. “If the hotel goes ahead, and with it the business model it represents, it will destroy this value.”
THREAT TO ECOSYSTEMS?
In addition to the threat of unbridled development, Yuang says the hotel threatens fragile marine systems.
“They just built directly on the sand which created lots of waste on the beach,” she said.
Since 2009, the TEIA has been studying the health of the bay’s eco-systems with the organization’s director Sun Hsiu-ju (孫秀如) stating: “Many coral reefs have been contaminated with dirt and sand.” The group also alleges that heavy-metal contaminants have been released as a result of the burning of construction waste.
In the beachside gardens backing onto the hotel’s temporary offices the team of public relations officers who have flown down from the resort’s Taipei base for the interview explain that the hotel group has always followed the rules.
“In December last year they had an important meeting at the Taitung government where we obtained their approval, so now we must let time tell because we made promises in our plans … and we have gained the support of many local people,” explains Heather Lin (林函潔).
Lin is also dismissive of the protesters and says they are largely from out of town and are simply following their own agenda. “You can see most of the protesters are from Taipei … but in Taipei they can’t see that we haven’t polluted the ocean.”
Tiger Ho (何金坤), the resort’s general manager, agrees and says the hotel has strived to reach the highest standards in terms of protecting the local environment.
“The coast is really special, and because there are no such large-scale hotels we want to invest more. We can solve the various issues raised by the protesters … The Miramar Hotel has invested a lot in environmental protection and we want our reputation to be based on the standard we set.”
Ho says that water filtration systems at the hotel are world class. He adds that hotel guests will be allowed to view the water cleaning operation for themselves.
Turning his attention to the increasingly well-known beachside town of Kenting in Pingtung County, Ho says times have changed.
“We are not modeling ourselves on Kenting … Kenting has been a big success but there are also issues there like pollution … We want to live in harmony with the beach because if you pollute it then people won’t come here.”
Fellow Miramar Hotel employee Jeffrey Chiu (邱聰得) chips in: “Kenting built the majority of its hotels 20 years ago and at that time Taiwan did not really have rules in place about how to best protect the ocean or the beach. But the Miramar Resort is a new hotel, so the government had to be really careful about that and to take those laws seriously.”
Once a small town located on Taiwan’s southernmost tip, Kenting has continued to witness tremendous growth. Aided in part by the ease of transport, the tourism hot spot is often cited as the end result of open-ended development. A 186-room hotel is situated slap in the middle of Kenting National Park and there are dozens more hotel complexes along the coastline.
Robert Storey, the veteran travel writer who penned the first Lonely Planet guide to Taiwan in 1985, has seen many changes to the region.
“The obvious fact is that these high-rise buildings are real eyesores, and constructing too many of them may well drive off the tourists who always have the option of going somewhere else,” said the 32-year resident of Taiwan — 16 of them spent in Taitung.
“The second reason these mega-hotels may not be so great for the economy is that they are hurting the currently booming business of home-stays which have sprung up all over Taiwan,” Storey said.
Storey, who lives near Luye and who describes himself as a “mountain person,” says that the risk of hotels spreading out across Taitung is very real.
“This issue affects many other places far removed from the east coast beaches. High-rise hotels are popping up in many scenic areas, not just on the coast.”
Miramar Resort Village remains a touchstone for the nature and size of future development in Taitung. For Ho the potential to fortify the local economy is unrivaled.
“We need to talk about confidence,” Ho said. “There are seven hotels of varying size in the pipeline and they are waiting for the Mirimar to open. If it does open then they will press ahead with their plans. This is the confidence I am talking about. Our vision is that if we open we can bring employment opportunities to Taitung. If the Miramar opens — as well as the seven other hotels — they will collectively bring at least 3,200 jobs to the region.”
Further up the coast, Australian Michael O’Neill, 49, a 17-year resident of Taiwan who works as a driftwood craftsman and chicken farmer, says the financial boost the hotel promises is questionable.
“Jobs are cited, but the existing hotels are struggling to fill vacancies. I don’t see how they’ll get the staff without bringing them in from Taipei.”
ENCOURAGE SMALL BUSINESS
O’Neill says that instead of the major hotel model, small businesses should be encouraged to cater for the growing numbers of independent holiday-makers.
“Efforts to bolster ecotourism through small business courses for local residents would do far more to enhance Taitung’s economic development than the building of several large hotels … There are more and more backpackers every day and they are not here because its overdeveloped. They’re here because it is still beautiful. Once the hotel is open, the beauty, the uniqueness of that space is gone.”
The TEIA’s Da Yuang echoes the sentiment. “If Taitung goes in the same direction as Kenting with lots of tourists on big buses it will push some people away such as backpackers … who come for the natural environment.”
The campaigner remains defiant. “The local government has said [the hotel] can open but we will still fight it through legal channels and through campaigning. We will tell people not to stay at the hotel and why, and let them know that this is wrong.”
Inside the hotel’s half-finished lobby a handful of security guards meander about nonchalantly — footprints mark their way through a thick layer of dust that covers nearly everything within the cavernous space. Hundreds of toilets are stacked in a corner and there is a heavy, eery-feeling as the Taitung sunshine struggles to break through the vast sand and sea-salt encrusted windows. There is something of the Mary Celeste about the place — a space very much in limbo.
For all the talk of picture-perfect vacations for holiday-making newlyweds and joyous beachside breaks for sports-loving tourists, the Miramar Resort Village does not exude an atmosphere of happiness. The on-going threat of further legal complications and a nationwide boycott in the offing only seems to add to the woes of this mothballed giant. It may be here that the future of Taitung is decided, but right now it feels very much trapped in the past.