By Flor Wang CNA staff writer
A decade after the Hsuehshan Tunnel has been opened to the public, Pinglin, a rural mountainous district in New Taipei City and once a boisterous stop in the Pei-Yi Freeway (Taipei-Yilan Freeway), feels forgotten by the outside world.
The one-kilometer-long Shuiliujiao Rd. -- the main business center in Pinglin -- is now almost empty throughout the year.
Business on the street was once flourishing and the scores of tea shops and eateries along it were usually packed with customers, most of whom were drivers and bus passengers traveling on the Pei Yi Freeway -- the main artery linking Taipei through New Taipei to Yilan County before the completion of the 12.9-kilometer Husehshan Tunnel.
But now all vehicles and passengers flock to the Husehshan Tunnel, which opened in June 2006, leaving no business for the community.
"I just hope that I could earn enough money for my retirement," said Chen A-chung, who has run the Wen Te tea shop for more than 30 years on the Shuiliujiao Rd.
"Since the opening of the tunnel, business has dwindled. Sales at my tea shop has dropped by 60 percent," he said, recalling the good old days of Pinglin when the street was packed round the clock, especially on weekends and holidays.
Now all shops on the Shuiliujiao Rd. close their doors every day as soon as it gets dark.
"I'm running the tea shop on the back of some old nostalgic customers who come back to visit Pinglin," Chen said.
The tunnel, located at the 15.2km-28.1km mark of the Pei Yi Free Way, significantly shortens the travel time between Taipei and Yilan, absorbing almost all of the traffic and passengers on that route. Ever since, the Pei Yi Freeway has yielded its key role as the primary link between both sides.
As a result, large crowds of visitors no long show up at these shops in Pinglin, despite the charm of its scenic spots which are full of greenery.
A man surnamed Liu who owns the Jing Yuan tea shop on the same street said: "I'm still doing the business thanks to the support of some old customers. But tea sales have plunged by 80 percent at my shop and I need to sell tea using home delivery mail service."
Another tea shop owner surnamed Cheng said sometimes not even a single customer would step into their shops for a whole day.
The drastic decline in visitors has led to a reduction in Pinglin's population.
According to tallies compiled by the Pinglin Household Registration Office in 2014, the local population has been less than 7,000 for many years and accounts for only 0.17 percent of that of New Taipei -- the most populous city in Taiwan.
Pinglin District chief Lu Xiue-ji said only 2,500 people actually live in Pinglin, with 22 percent being elderly people aged over 65 due to an exodus of young people.
Since 2008, Pinglin's population has posted no growth and such a small population is no good to industrial development, including its tea business.
Although authorities started to promote low-carbon travel in 2008, featuring bike tours and Pinglin's unique Pouchong tea culture, as a means of luring back visitors and was once successful, local business owners, however, said the trend has been fading.
They said they are worried that Pinglin's tea plantation and producing techniques will also fade away with no young people taking over such jobs.
Since Pinglin has been designated a special zone for water reserves, its development has been limited, Lu said.
In light of the ban on new hotels and hostels and the disappearance of the Pouchong tea-drinking culture, the local tourism sector needs to come up with fresh ideas and incentives to restore Pinglin to its past glory, he said.
By Flor Wang CNA staff writer