Penghu Islands: Cultural Heritage Tourism vs Casino Tourism
Penghu (澎湖群島, The Pescadores) is an archipelago off the western coast of Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait consisting of 90 small islands covering an area of 141 square kilometers. They are administered as Penghu County, Taiwan, Republic of China.
As with many places around the world Penghu is struggling to preserve it’s unique cultural heritage. Penghu’s coral limestone architecture is fast disappearing due to modernization and neglect.
Coral limestone is strong yet porous and abundant on the archipelago. For more than a century some of the one-story coral houses have endured typhoons, modernization and neglect. In 2003 the only study ever done found about 2000 coral houses left, but the number is believed to be significantly lower now.
As the Taipei Times reports, there are a few who are attempting to save some of these unique structures and some local officials are waking up to the potential value of the archipelago’s unique architectural resources.
Last year, the local government obtained NT$2 million [US$60,000] in funding from the Executive Yuan’s economic development committee for a program that asks fund recipients to pay one-third of the cost of restoring their home, with the remaining cost coming from the fund.
The level of funding reflects the priority given to protect Taiwan’s heritage resources. It can cost up to NT$1 million [US$30,000] to restore one coral house. So far, only one Penghu resident has applied for the money.
In 1995 the World Heritage town of Hoi An, Viet Nam, set up a heritage restoration fund to help homeowners repair or restore historic houses. Applicants are funded on a sliding scale based on their income. Usually 20% to 80% of restoration costs are covered, but in special cases 100% of costs will be granted. In addition, businesses operating from the restored houses are offered tax breaks.
In the past 13 years scores of historic buildings have been restored and Hoi An is now considered a rare Asian World Heritage success story. The original communities have stayed in the town and the social evils usually associated with tourism have been minimized.
[Hoi An report PDF 95kb]
Penghu mulls casino development as Macau limits casinos
Taiwan’s new President-elect Ma Ying-jeou publicly promised during his “thank you” tour of Penghu April 9  that once Penghu residents reach a consensus on the casino issue, the central government — set to be inaugurated May 20  – will spare no efforts to help facilitate the development.
As Macau is adopting measures to limit casinos due to social unrest caused by increased crime rates, high inflation, rampant corruption and so on, it makes me wonder if sleepy Penghu would be better off with a casino. The casino may very well increase the GDP of the archipelago but at what cost to its delicate social fabric? And who would travel to Penghu to gamble when Macau is much easier to access and has six world class casinos?
When I visited Penghu a few years ago, I asked several locals what they thought about casino tourism. All of them acknowledged the potential financial benefits but were concerned about what kind of people it would bring to the archipelago.
A referendum held in 2003 showed that around 57 percent of Penghu’s residents backed the casino plan. This figure is often used by politicians when justifying the development. What is often not mentioned, is that the voter turnout was 21 percent. Interpreted another way, only 11 percent of residents have backed the plan.
Harnessing cultural heritage resources
In March this year a global tourism survey showed Taiwan had plunged 22 places to 52nd and fell three notches to seventh in Asia in a world ranking of competitiveness. In terms of human, cultural and natural resources the nation dropped from 23rd to 79th.
In the 1980s the Singaporean government was forced to analyze its development policies when tourist arrivals fell dramatically. A Tourism Task Force reported that the drop was due, in part, to the devastating effects of urban renewal on large parts of the old city with many old buildings and districts falling victim to wholesale redevelopment. In the effort to modernize, Singapore had removed aspects of its oriental mystique and charm which was best symbolised in old buildings and traditional activities.
The change in government policy has led to a dramatic increase in tourism in Singapore. Extensive conservation and restoration of ethnic districts such as Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam has helped 2007 become another record breaking year for Singapore’s tourism sector.
The record number of arrivals is evidence that preservation of cultural heritage resources can bring long term sustainable tourism growth. Macau has also been investing heavily to diversify its image and boost its reputation as a cultural destination.
Learning from successful preservation strategies adopted by other nations will enable Penghu and Taiwan to sustainably harness their cultural heritage resources. And hopefully, save a few more coral houses for future generations to enjoy.