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April earthquake in Taiwan deals another blow to tourism industry

As the owner of a guesthouse in Taiwan’s Hualien County, Chen Rei-jia was accustomed to the minor tremors that sometimes disrupted her work. But this time something seemed different.

“The shaking got stronger and lasted longer, and when the emergency vehicles arrived, I was scared,” she said. “We heard rocks falling everywhere and saw smoke and dust all around. There were huge landslides in front and behind us.”

Coming out of his house to survey the damage, Chen had just survived the 7.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Taiwan on April 3 – the largest earthquake to hit the island in 25 years.

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

Chen Rei-jia, owner of a guesthouse in Hualien County, Taiwan.

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

Today, survivors like Chen face a new challenge. Tourists canceled their trips en masse and tour groups disappeared.

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

“It’s disastrous; there are no tourists,” Chen said. “Everyone is too scared to come.”

Empty restaurants and canceled reservations

The brunt of the earthquake’s damage occurred in Hualien County, which draws millions of visitors each year to the towering peaks and waterfalls of its main draw, Taroko Gorge.

But now the once-busy mountain roads and footpaths leading to the gorges are blocked by rubble, and large swathes of Taroko National Park remain closed.

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

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

Lai owns a restaurant near Taroko Gorge. “It feels like there’s no end in sight.”

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

The damage to the area also poses a problem for local tour guides like Liang Shiun-chu.

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

The number of visits to Hualien’s scenic spots has fallen by 85 percent since last year, according to local authorities. Liang said some guides like him now work as taxi drivers and struggle to make ends meet.

Tour guide Liang Shiun-chu drives a taxi to make ends meet. “Since the earthquake, all our reservations have been canceled.”

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

“Business is down to 30-50% of what it was before,” he said. “Many friends have left Hualien to work elsewhere because it is very difficult for our industry here. I also considered moving to another county.

These trends are reflected across different tourism sectors, with the Hualien Hotel Association reporting that post-quake occupancy levels fell to just 5% – an observation echoed by Howard Yeh, the manager of a local inn.

Howard Yeh, the manager of a local inn. “We just have to hold on and keep waiting.”

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

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

Despite the hopes of Hualien residents, local authorities say a return to pre-quake tourism levels could take years.

“It could take five to 10 years for a full recovery,” Chang Chih-hsiang, general manager of Hualien’s tourism department, told CNBC Travel.

Difficulty entering

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

Starting in July, visitors to Hualien County will also be able to receive up to NT$1,000 ($31) in accommodation subsidies, with travel agencies receiving up to NT$20,000 ($618).

Chang Chih-hsiang, director of the Hualien tourism bureau, estimates that the region’s tourism industry could take five to 10 years to fully recover.

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

Despite this, residents fear that these measures will not be enough. Stephanie Zhang, president of the Hualien Hotel Association, said her organization predicts, in a best-case scenario, hotel occupancy rates will return to 40 to 50 percent this summer.

Continued media coverage of the earthquake, images posted on social media showing collapsed buildings and the nearly 1,500 aftershocks that have hit Taiwan since the first quake have done little to restore traveler confidence.

Even if visitors wanted to visit Hualien, accessing the county is more difficult than before. About 70 percent of tourists arrive in Hualien from northern Taiwan, Chang said, but the quake damaged the road that connects the city to Taipei.

The road still operates at specific times of day and the county is still accessible by train and plane, but the damage has taken its toll.

The Hualien tourism bureau is working to restore the city and promote Hualien as a safe tourist destination, Chen said.

“If we do not reverse this trend and restore tourist confidence in Hualien, the loss is estimated to be around NT$15 billion by the end of the year,” he said.

Widespread repercussions

The effects of the earthquake reverberated well beyond Hualien’s tourism sector. “Tourism is the lifeblood of Hualien,” Chang said.

When the tourism industry suffers, the rest of the region suffers as well.

Markets, which usually serve locals, are suffering because locals are not making money, said Cheng Wen-zhong, a market vendor. “If tourists don’t come, our business will suffer considerably.” Lin Ya-mi, a fish seller at the city’s wet market, said business had fallen by two-thirds.

Lin Ya-mi, fish seller in a wet market in Hualien.

Source: Jan Camenzind Broomby

Despite this, Hualien residents hope that tourists will return soon, so that life can return to normal.

Standing in her empty restaurant at the entrance to Taroko Gorge, Lai Sui-er said she still had faith in the future.

“If it doesn’t work here, we’ll look elsewhere. And if it still doesn’t work, we’ll find work. It doesn’t matter how much we earn, as long as we can earn a living, we can get by.” by being frugal,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

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

cnbc

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