Travel & Leisure

Kenting resort strip in Taiwan makes a clean start after big drop in visitors

  • New attractions and environmental improvements in Kenting National Park a response to tourists’ complaints and a drop in China tour groups
  • Some guest houses and restaurants have closed, and others have frozen prices, while hotels pursue new sources of visitors, including Russia

Ralph Jennings UPDATED :

On Taiwan’s premier coastal resort strip, a national park office is asking beach vendors to remove unused sun umbrellas and park idle watercraft onshore instead of in the water. It wants Nanwan, a major beach in the Kenting resort area, to look cleaner and safer. Tourist arrivals have dropped since 2015, hence the concern.

The number of visitors to Kenting National Park, which encompasses most of the resort area, hit a peak of 8.3 million in 2014 and topped 8 million again in 2015. Last year there were just 4.5 million arrivals, and in the first 10 months of 2018 just 3 million, according to park data.

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Down the road from Nanwan, or South Bay, the Howard Beach Resort Kenting is building a mall that will accommodate at least five restaurants and a pub for up to 800 people. The hotel, which has 458 rooms, will open the mall next year alongside its indoor water park, so guests have things to do at night and in all weather, says general manager Chang Chi-kuang.

Meanwhile, in the Kenting hamlet of Jialeshui, the five-room SummerPoint guest house, popular with surfers, is avoiding increases in room rates.

Kenting has been struggling of late, and is taking steps to recover.

A quiet moment on Kenting’s west coast. Visitor numbers have more than halved since 2015. Photo: Chris Stowers

Tour group arrivals from China have dropped from their peak three years ago, largely because of political tensions between Taipei and Beijing. Domestic visitors and tourists from Hong Kong, two other major sources of traffic, still visit the area in peak seasons, but have begun griping about prices, a chaotic main highway and unregulated development from the surf into the hills.

Prodded by those complaints, operators are minding their prices and amenities. Authorities are pushing for a cleaner look. Fewer hoteliers and restaurateurs in the 333-square-kilometre (128-square-mile) park are looking to tour groups from China for a business lift.

“At the moment in Kenting, we need to thank the people who are complaining,” says Kuo Tzu-yi, director of the Pingtung Tourism Association. “Now the beaches and the whole consumer market have been cleaned up and made a bit neater.”

Nanwan, or South Bay, in Kenting. Taiwan, where beach vendors have been asked to remove unused sun umbrellas and park idle watercraft onshore for a cleaner look. Photo: Chris Stowers

Xiaowan, or Little Bay, Beach in Kenting. Photo: Chris Stowers

Since the peak in Chinese tourists, 20 Kenting guest houses have closed temporarily, says Kuo, leaving about 100 registered hotels and guest houses. One or two restaurants have suspended business, too, he said.

Tourists from China began pulling back in 2016 because Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen would not abide by the one- China principle agreed with Beijing in 1992 – the latter’s precondition for formal dialogue. Talks between the two sides had led to record levels of economic cooperation over the previous eight years, including a deal in 2008 to allow Chinese tour groups into Taiwan for the first time.

Domestic visitors often find prices to be being higher than they expected. A stay at even a far-flung guest house can easily top US$100 per night, and a meal for four costs about US$40. Kenting’s meal prices compare to those of the capital, Taipei, but restaurants do not add any extras, says Hsu Tsai-tung, a conference planner who visited with 15 family members in January.

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“I thought it should have been cheaper,” says Hsu, 42. “If you go to other places in central or southern Taiwan, you’d get much bigger portions for the same prices. Our expenses were like those on an overseas trip.”

Chinese group tourism has helped support Kenting’s prices. It also added to crowding on the resort district’s main boulevard, where vehicles squeeze past clumps of pedestrians as they check out kebabs, fruit and corn on the cob at roadside stalls. Day trippers from China covered the whites sand of Nanwan and Xiaowan, or Little Bay, attracting mobile vendors and adding to the accumulation of rubbish.

Some tourists still find Kenting’s main boulevard unclean and its beaches chaotic and with too little space to relax.

Sail Rock seen from Kenting National Park, which encompasses most of the resort area at the southern tip of Taiwan. Photo: Chris Stowers

“The sanitation wasn’t too good, and the vending stalls looked dirty,” recalls Matthew Chang, 38, who works in the electronics industry in Taipei. He visited in 2016. “I wouldn’t know what to say except to clean it up. The natural scenery was fine,” says Chang.

He says he found the US$60 nightly stay at a guest house near the boulevard pricey.

Hotels, restaurants and the national park are using the lull in visitors to retool. They hope to win over sceptical tourists by keeping premises clean and affordable.

The Gangkou Suspension Bridge on Kenting’s east coast. Photo: Chris Stowers

The Howard Kenting is already seeing an uptick in Russian tourists to offset the loss of visitors from China. Business had declined about 20 per cent, according to the general manager, much of that because of fewer bookings from China.

“Kenting is widely recognised as Taiwan’s best tourist spot because of the beaches and the national park,” says Chang. But visitors demand more, he says. “I believe that we can give tourists some shopping or places for entertainment in the evening.”

Independent tourists from China still join Hong Kong travellers and domestic visitors for summer breaks, making guest rooms hard to book.

Hengchun Walled Town in Kenting. Photo: Chris Stowers

The regulation of beach umbrellas and watercraft at Nanwan will extend eventually to other beaches, says national park staffer Hung Yin-bin. A charity has also placed trash bins and cleaned up public spaces.

Taiwanese who are wary now may return, as services that catered mainly to Chinese group tourists close, says Monica Chen, wife of the SummerPoint owner. “Most were opportunistic investors, and the quality that they offered will not be in demand, so that kind of person will be eliminated and the remaining stores will get ever better,” she says.

 Getting there: High-speed trains to Kaohsiung from Taipei take around two hours. A flight from Hong Kong to Kaohsiung takes 90 minutes. Long-distance buses from the high-speed-train station and airport make the two-hour trip to Kenting.