Matsu is placing its bets on developing the local tourism industry.
At the entrance of a heavily fortified mountain bunker overlooking Beigan Airport in the outlying Matsu islands, young Taiwanese artillery gunners practice rapidly loading shells into their massive weapon, placing the igniter and taking aim—all in response to their squad leader’s roaring commands. The firing cord is pulled, the gun booms and an imaginary enemy warship a few kilometers away is sent to the bottom of the Taiwan Strait.
Matsu, a Republic of China (ROC)-controlled archipelago lying just 9 kilometers off mainland China’s coast but almost 200 kilometers from Taiwan proper, bore the brunt of cross-strait tensions for decades. The islands’ residents endured fierce bombardments in the 1950s, for example, and had to cope with the presence of landmines until very recently. In light of the dramatic improvement in relations with mainland China in recent years, however, Matsu is now placing its bets firmly on developing its tourism sector. Matsu’s truly picturesque coastal scenery is certainly an invaluable asset in that regard, and, in an intriguing twist, the old battlefields that were for decades a sad reminder of strife could create a windfall by attracting new visitors.
After the Chinese Civil War, Matsu—like Kinmen, the ROC’s other frontline archipelago in the Taiwan Strait—was heavily fortified by the retreating Nationalist military. Almost everywhere one looks on Matsu, there are bunkers, gun placements and tunnels. Some of the sites are the subjects of eerie war stories such as one about enemy frogmen who, on a misty, chill autumn night some 50 years ago, cut the throats of an entire platoon of Taiwanese conscripts.
Now, in the era of much warmer cross-strait relations—and likely also because modern “smart bombs” render such massive, immobile artillery positions obsolete—the ROC military has opened many of the old sites to tourists. One of the most notable is Beihai Tunnel on Nangan, which is partly flooded and was built to shelter 100 landing vessels similar to those the Allies used to reach French beaches during World War II. According to the battle plans for retaking mainland China drawn up by Nationalist military planners, each of the boats was to have carried around 120 troops.
Another Nangan fortification turned tourist attraction is Dahan Stronghold, an enormous three-level bunker complex designed to control the sea lanes around Matsu. ROC strategists surmised that an attempted invasion of Taiwan proper by mainland Chinese naval forces could be thwarted by using Dahan-based artillery to pound the communists’ ships from the time they left ports in the mainland until well after they had passed Matsu.
The conversion of military installations into tourist attractions is not the only sign that Taiwan’s defense planning has changed. Fears of an invasion by mainland Chinese ground forces have declined so much that in June 2013, Matsu and Kinmen were declared land-mine free by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), and the number of troops in Matsu has fallen from 50,000 in the 1980s to around 5,000 today, according to figures from Lienchiang County, which administers Matsu. “Of course, that troop withdrawal hit Matsu economically for a while, but today the impact has been overcome through tourism,” says Yang Suei-sheng (楊綏生), Lienchiang County magistrate.
A further reduction in the number of troops, however, does not appear to be likely for the time being. “The military deployment in Matsu is necessary as long as mainland China doesn’t renounce its use of force against the Republic of China,” says Vanessa Shih (史亞平), vice minister of foreign affairs.
Arguably the second-most famous tourist draw in Matsu is Beigan’s Qinbi Village, a collection of old stone houses with a strikingly Mediterranean appearance. The village is reputedly inhabited by a single clan, the Chens, who have turned a number of the houses into cozy homestays. “Our ancestors came here about a century ago from the mainland, or more accurately from Heshan in Fujian province,” says Wang Yun-zhu (王韻筑), a Qinbi homestay operator in her 60s. “At first, they only stayed temporarily while they were pursuing the abundant fish in the area, but later they settled here to take up farming.”
Wang, who married into the Chen clan but kept her last name, explains that Qinbi’s original houses were not made of stone but of clay, reeds and other plentiful local materials. The transition to the unique Qinbi architectural style seen today was incremental, and most of the stone houses were built from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. “Then, some years ago, a county magistrate traveled to Europe and was impressed by the architectural conservation efforts there. When he returned, he told us he could promote the houses as a tourism asset, but only if we held firmly to the Qinbi style,” Wang says. Acting on the magistrate’s advice, the villagers banned construction of taller buildings and required that all façades be covered with natural stone.
She concedes, however, that granite blocks used in recent restoration efforts in Qinbi did not come from Matsu, but were imported from mainland China instead. The Chens do not have much choice about where they get the stone, she says, as granite has become rare in Matsu, and its weight makes transport from far-away Taiwan much more expensive than sourcing it from mainland China.
Like many Matsu families, the Chens moved to Taiwan proper decades ago. With the assistance of the county government, in the mid-2000s the family renovated some of the abandoned structures for use as homestays. An increasing number of tourists made operating the homestays lucrative, and members of the family began spending the peak tourism season—from April to October—in Qinbi, Wang explains. In the winter, when the sea breeze turns chilly in Matsu and visitors are few, hired hands run the business.
Wang confidently says business has improved steadily due to the Internet, which has made it much easier for independent travelers to book rooms. Most independent visitors hail from Taiwan proper, but the number of those from Hong Kong, Japan and Southeast Asia has been growing, she says. On the other hand, “mainland Chinese guests are very few and far between,” she adds.
In 2012, local residents decided that the area needed a more powerful tourism magnet than quaint stone houses, historic war relics and beautiful coastlines. In a public referendum held on July 7 that year, 57 percent of eligible voters supported the establishment of legalized gambling in Matsu. Two days later, William P. Weidner, president of Weidner Resorts Taiwan, announced that his company planned to submit a bid to build a gigantic casino resort, largely on land reclaimed from the ocean. Before any construction can begin, however, the proposed Gambling Act must be passed by the Legislative Yuan, where it is being reviewed by economic, legal and transportation committees.
The potential impact of allowing gambling on Matsu on the current cordial state of cross-strait relations must also be weighed, as casinos would attract many gamblers from mainland China, and some mainland Chinese officials have said that they do not wish to have such establishments on their doorstep.
Some observers, however, do not place much stock in claims of mainland Chinese resistance. “It’s not at all clear what the mainland Chinese central, provincial, and city governments want, but in any case they have no veto on the legislative process,” says Martin Williams, Taipei-based Asia editor for Gambling Compliance, an information provider for the global gaming industry. “Indeed, they have been remarkably quiet at this stage, notwithstanding a few comments here and there from Fuzhou-based central government officials or Taiwanese in Beijing who claim conversations with government contacts,” he adds. Fuzhou is the capital of Fujian, the province nearest Matsu and the home of many of the gamblers likely to visit the casinos.
Along with its casino resort, Weidner Resorts Taiwan’s plans include infrastructure projects such as upgrading Matsu Beigan Airport to allow large passenger jets to land. “The runways of our two airports on Beigan and Nangan [islands] are so short they can be served by small 56-seaters only,” Yang says. “In other words, tourists can’t come on days with bad weather because the small planes can’t fly. And ironically, many can’t come on good days, either because the seats are always sold out.”
The county magistrate’s assessment is supported by statistics on the operations of Uni Air, the only airline serving Matsu. In August 2013, the occupancy rate of the airline’s flights between Taipei and Matsu reached 90 percent, while those to and from Taichung City in central Taiwan reached 93.7 percent.
Matsu can also be reached by sea, but Yang’s rule of thumb governing transportation and weather also applies to ships: Due to the capricious weather conditions in the Taiwan Strait, ferries between Matsu and northern Taiwan’s Keelung Harbor are only able to operate on about 200 days per year, he says.
Lienchiang County officials are understandably enthusiastic about Weidner’s proposal to upgrade the airport. Yang says, however, that the county and central governments should continue developing Matsu’s transportation infrastructure regardless of the fate of the Gambling Act—and thus Weidner’s casino plans—in the legislature. Later this year, improvements at Beigan’s airport will allow slightly bigger planes to land, he says. Meanwhile, infrastructure upgrades allowing the use of faster ferries at ports in Matsu and mainland China were expected to be completed by November 2013, he adds. Planners predict the new ships will cut the travel time for cross-strait trips from 90 minutes to 30 minutes.
As for attracting more visitors from Taiwan, Matsu confronts a number of challenges. An obvious trend, for example, indicates that Taiwanese travelers are becoming more focused on visiting international destinations than domestic ones. Statistics from Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau show that international trips rose by 6.8 percent in 2012. In the same period, however, according to Euromonitor International Ltd., a UK-based market research company, domestic trips of longer than 24 hours decreased by 1.3 percent. That declining interest in domestic travel could be the reason behind the 1.5 percent year-on-year decrease in tourist arrivals that Matsu recorded in the first three months of 2013, despite significant domestic and international publicity from the casino referendum and Weidner’s promotion of its project.
A Tourism Bureau survey conducted in 2011 also provides answers as to why Matsu is the least popular of Taiwan’s major outlying islands among domestic travelers. In that survey, 88.6 percent of the respondents preferred taking domestic trips of only one to two days, which largely eliminates Matsu, given the amount of time needed for transportation to and from the archipelago. The survey also found that the main factors domestic travelers weighed when choosing a destination were convenient transportation (32.6 percent), a typical local activity (18.5 percent), exciting food (13.3 percent) and amusement facilities for children (6.5 percent). Matsu, unfortunately, is not particularly strong in any of those areas.
Chi Jun-chen (紀俊臣) is a professor in the Tourism Department at Taipei’s Ming Chuan University who has done extensive research on Matsu’s tourism potential. “Matsu needs investment before it can be turned into a tourist haven,” he says.
Chi points out another shortcoming: insufficient land. “Take E-DA World in Kaohsiung, for example,” he says, referring to a 90-hectare shopping and entertainment district in the southern Taiwan city. “As a tourism complex integrating a hotel, theme park, restaurants and shopping malls, it’s very popular, but there’s not enough land on Matsu to build something like that.”
Meanwhile, red tape often makes visitors from mainland China consider other destinations. “One reason that only a few thousand mainland Chinese make it to Matsu annually is that official travel requirements complicate things,” Yang says. Before departing for Matsu, independent mainland Chinese travelers must obtain an exit permit from their government, and that process takes around three to four weeks. “This regulation works against a meaningful influx of mainland tourists, so we are pushing hard to have it eased,” Yang says.
According to a Hong Kong tourism expert, however, Matsu’s situation appears fairly promising. Brian King, associate dean of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, believes that the mainland Chinese tourism market is so vast that Matsu can succeed as a destination even without gigantic construction projects. “If the casino doesn’t come into being, Matsu could still cash in on mainland China’s trend toward independent travel,” he says. King recalls that as he was growing up in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, mass tourism slowly gave way to individual travel, adding that the same process is happening in mainland China, but much more quickly. “And the mainland’s market size—with over 100 million travelers annually—means that any accessible place with products of interest for tourists should do fine if it’s properly promoted,” he says.
King singles out the development of duty-free shopping as a good opportunity for Matsu. Mainland Chinese shoppers are very comfortable with the idea of traveling across borders in pursuit of a bargain, he says, as long as product quality is acceptable, brands are reliable and there is no attempt to sell counterfeit goods. “And if they’re not required to stay overnight—for example by a mainland regulation that duty-free shoppers must leave the mainland’s jurisdiction for at least 24 hours—Matsu wouldn’t need much land for construction [of duty-free stores],” he says.
The Hong Kong academic also sees real potential in battlefield tourism. “If a developer finds the right channels for promoting trips to Taiwan’s military sites in the mainland market, there will surely be groups that are particularly interested in that type of thing,” he says, adding that some travel agencies in mainland China already offer trips for such special interest groups.
Back at the artillery position high above Beigan Airport, members of the Matsu Defense Command lead a group of foreign journalists into the eerie tunnels behind the huge gun. There, loaded on pallets, is enough bottled water, canned food and military-issue chocolate to last two weeks in the event that hostilities break out. The stuff is not nearly as bad as it looks, the gunners say.
When asked whether they might need the supplies one day, the members of the gun crew shake their heads. In Matsu, it seems, there is a sense that the tense days of the past are gone. The mainland Chinese might soon come, the thinking goes, but this time as vacationers, not frogmen.
Jens Kastner is a freelance writer based in Taipei.
Copyright © 2014 by Jens Kastner