April earthquake deals one other blow to Taiwan's tourism industry

As the owner of a guesthouse in Hualien County, Taiwan, Chen Rei-jia was used to minor earthquakes sometimes disrupting her work. But this time, something felt different.

“The shaking became stronger and lasted longer, and when the rescue vehicles arrived, I started to get scared,” she said. “We heard rocks falling everywhere and saw smoke and dust. There were massive landslides in front of and behind us.”

When Chen left her house to survey the damage, she had just survived the 7.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Taiwan on April 3, the strongest quake to hit the island in 25 years.

“I have never experienced such a strong earthquake in my life. It was really terrible,” said the 60-year-old.

Now survivors like Chen are facing a brand new challenge: tourists have canceled their trips en masse and tour groups have disappeared.

For many residents of Hualien, whose economy depends 70 percent on tourism, the situation is quickly becoming an existential threat.

“It's bad. There are no tourists,” Chen said. “Everyone is too scared to come.”

Empty restaurants and cancelled reservations

The earthquake caused the best damage in Hualien County, which attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually to its important attraction, the Taroko Gorge, with its towering peaks and waterfalls.

But now the previously crowded mountain roads and mountain climbing trails to the gorge are blocked by debris and huge parts of Taroko National Park remain closed.

A girl named Lai, who owns a restaurant near the doorway to the gorge, said her once full restaurant is now empty.

“We really hope the national park can reopen, but if not, there's nothing we can do,” she said. “It feels like there's no end in sight.”

The damage in the realm can also be an issue for local tour guides like Liang Shiun-chu.

“Our usual tour package focuses on Taroko,” he explained. “Since the earthquake, all our bookings have been cancelled.”

The variety of visits to Hualien's tourist attractions has dropped by 85 percent since last 12 months, based on local authorities. Liang said some tour guides like him are actually working as taxi drivers and are finding it difficult to make ends meet.

“Business is now only running at 30 to 50 percent of its previous turnover,” he said. “Many friends have left Hualien to work elsewhere because it is very hard for our industry here. I have also considered moving to another county.”

These trends are reflected in various tourism sectors. The Hualien Hotel Association, for instance, reported that occupancy rates dropped to simply 5 percent after the earthquake – an remark confirmed by Howard Yeh, the manager of an area hostel.

“About 90% of foreign visitors come to Hualien specifically for the Taroko Gorge. With this major attraction temporarily closed, Hualien loses much of its attraction for tourists,” he said. “We just have to hold on and keep waiting.”

Despite these hopes of Hualien residents, local authorities consider it could take years for tourism to return to foreshock levels.

“It may take five to 10 years for the situation to fully recover,” Chang Chih-hsiang, director general of the Hualien Tourism Bureau, told CNBC Travel.

Difficulties boarding

To speed up the recovery process, Taiwan's local and national governments have introduced programs to support local businesses and encourage visitors to return. The government guarantees loans and subsidizes rates of interest for local businesses that need loans.

Starting in July, visitors to Hualien County may receive as much as 1,000 New Taiwan dollars (US$31) in accommodation subsidies, and travel agents can receive as much as NT$20,000 (US$618).

Nevertheless, locals fear that these measures is probably not enough. Stephanie Zhang, chairwoman of the Hualien Hotel Association, said her organization expects hotel occupancy to return to 40 to 50 percent in the summertime at best.

Continued coverage of the earthquake, social media clips of collapsed buildings and the roughly 1,500 aftershocks which have struck Taiwan because the first quake have done nothing to revive travelers' confidence.

Even if visitors need to visit Hualien, attending to the county is tougher than before. About 70 percent of tourists come from northern Taiwan, Chang explained, however the earthquake damaged the road connecting the town to Taipei.

The road continues to be passable at certain times of the day and the county continues to be accessible by train and air, however the damage has taken its toll.

The Hualien Tourism Bureau is working to revive the town and promote Hualien as a secure travel destination, Chen said.

“If we fail to reverse this trend and restore tourists' confidence in Hualien, losses are estimated to be around NT$15 billion by the end of the year,” he said.

Far-reaching effects

The impact of the earthquake has implications far beyond Hualien's tourism sector. “Tourism is Hualien's lifeblood,” Chang explained.

When the tourism industry suffers, the remainder of the region suffers too.

Markets that normally serve locals are suffering because locals aren’t getting cash, explained market trader Cheng Wen-zhong. “When tourists stay away, our business suffers significantly.” Lin Ya-mi, a fish seller at the town's fresh market, said business has dropped by two-thirds.

Nevertheless, the residents of Hualien hope that tourists will return soon and life can return to normal.

In her empty restaurant at the doorway to Taroko Gorge, Lai Sui-er said she still had confidence in the long run.

“If it doesn't work out here, we'll look somewhere else. And if that still doesn't work out, we'll find work. No matter how much we earn, as long as we can earn a living, we'll get by by being frugal,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

“There is hope,” she said. “We will find a way.”

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