While this year will be remembered by many as a year of travel bans and canceled vacations, Tao communities on Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼) will remember it as the year unprecedented numbers of visitors descended on their once tranquil home.
The small island is home to about 4,700 ethnic Tao or Yami people, and has in the past few years become a popular travel destination for Taiwanese and foreigners alike.
With bans on international travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, Orchid Island has experienced an unexpected surge in domestic visitors to more than 220,000 — putting a strain on both its natural resources and its inhabitants.
A community whose livelihood revolves around fishing, anthropologists believe the Tao migrated to Orchid Island from Batan Island in the northern Philippines about 800 years ago.
They have their own language and belief system, as well as customs such as tatala boat-building, underground homes and taro cultivation.
Since 1982, the island has also housed a nuclear waste facility, which has drawn strong opposition and protests from Tao locals.
Taiwan has enforced tight measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, and the government encouraged the nation’s nearly 24 million population to spend the summer vacation within Taiwan’s borders to bolster the economy, offering travel subsidies and discounts.
On many days during the summer, ferries to Orchid Island, as well as accommodation on the island were completely booked.
Many Tao islanders are now engaged in the seasonal tourism industry, working as scuba instructors, hoteliers, restaurateurs and guides.
However, with 82,000 visitors over July and August alone, the 45km2 island’s traditional Tao way of life and ecological balance have been pushed to the brink.
“Here it used to be so beautiful and clean, but since more people have been arriving, the whole place has become a sewage plant,” said Lu Mai of the Orchid Island Youth Action Alliance.
To cope with the amount of trash produced on the island over the summer, hoteliers launched a “take home one kilogram per person” scheme aimed at tourists.
The township office similarly initiated a donation scheme of NT$200 per visitor to help with the cost of transporting garbage back to Taiwan proper. Still, much of what is picked up on the coasts has floated across the sea from places such as China, Hong Kong and Vietnam.
For the past seven years, Tao men have organized an annual ocean cleanup scheme funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The increasing presence of Taiwanese fishing trawlers also frustrates local volunteers, many of whom are small-scale fishers.
“Go to the market, you’ll see the catches are getting smaller. Tao people used to catch only what we needed, sharing it out within the community. Now people are selling small fry,” local guide Sima Papo said.
Climate change is another factor damaging the marine environment on which the Tao rely.
This summer’s warmth caused Taiwan’s worst coral bleaching event in 22 years, Greenpeace Taiwan said.
Tao people are concerned that if the combined pressures from tourism and climate change worsen, their ways of life, traditional and modern, will be affected.
“Approximately half” of Orchid’s Tao people live and work seasonally in mainland Taiwanese cities where they find better economic opportunities, locals said.
This has led to an exodus of young people from the island, and a workforce shortage during the off-season.
“Young men used to help construct underground houses and build their tatala as a rite of passage,” said Ah Shan, a local handyman. “The women took care of agriculture and food production. Now, nobody cares because there is no money in it — unless it is for tourists.”
“Now, you can barely see the ocean for all the concrete. Islanders themselves have built it like this, completely unharmonized ... this tourism development has eroded our culture,” said Sheng An, head of the Ivalini community.
Some Tao have called for limits to be placed on visitor numbers.
“We have had discussions internally and with the township office, but [a tourist limit] is not something we can say we would implement right now,” said Liu Shu-hao from the Taitung County Tourism Department.
However, some Tao people say that they have been let down by government bureaucracy.
“The government bodies are too idealistic,” Papo said. “They think we have time to pick up trash from the ocean. This year, our men are too busy running business on the island, taking tourists around. Who is going to miss a day of wages to look after the land?”
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