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?”
A survey of young Taiwanese showed that only 36.5 percent of men and 19.6 percent of women believe marriage is important, a trend that academics say is key to the nation’s low birthrate. Yang Wen-shan (楊文山), an adjunct research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, yesterday announced the 12th round of results from a longitudinal survey of attitudes among young Taiwanese toward markers of adulthood. While few of the respondents, who were aged 28 to 32 when surveyed in 2017, found marriage to be important, 95.8 percent believed that being responsible for oneself should take precedence, data showed. Economic independence came in
SHRINKING FEMALE POPULATION: Last year, 107.74 boys were born for every 100 girls in Taiwan, which is a greater gender imbalance than in Japan and South Korea The Ministry of the Interior recorded 9,601 births in January, the first time the nation has produced fewer than 10,000 newborns in a single month, while different indicators showed that Taiwan might also be facing a population with increasingly fewer births, women and marriages. It comes after the ministry reported a record low 165,249 births last year, which was lower than the 173,156 deaths recorded last year. The nation experienced negative population growth for the first time last year, ministry data found. The number of births in January also dropped from a year earlier, when there were 12,510 births. In February, there were
The Hualien District Prosecutors’ Office has listed six people as suspects in a judicial investigation into a fatal train crash on Friday last week. Fifty people were killed and more than 200 were injured when the Taroko Express No. 408 train slammed into a crane truck that had slid onto the tracks near the entrance of Cingshuei Tunnel (清水隧道) in Hualien’s Sioulin Township (秀林). The office also summoned six officials at the Taiwan Railways Administration’s (TRA) Hualien Engineering Section for questioning about alleged illegal business operations and unsafe work conditions by Yi Hsiang Industry Co and Tung Hsin Construction Co, the two
KEEPING FOCUSED: Premier Su Tseng-chang was said to have commended Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung, but said the tragedy takes priority Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) has submitted a verbal resignation in the wake of the Taroko Express No. 408 train crash two days ago, Executive Yuan spokesman Lo Ping-cheng (羅秉成) said yesterday. In a call, Lin told Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) that he wished to step down, to take responsibility for the deadliest accident involving a Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) train in 40 years. As of press time last night, the Hualien District Prosecutors’ Office had revised the death toll from 51, which had been reported on the previous day, to 50, after DNA testing showed that what had