Cat tourism: Small towns in Asia look to stray cats to lure in tourists and rescue dying communities
An army of cats rules the remote island of Aoshima in southern Japan, curling up in abandoned houses or strutting about. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)
Novel approaches have often been tried in an attempt to reverse the decline of small towns and rejuvenate local economies, but cat tourism has to be one of the more unusual.
- An island with more cats than people plans makeover to lure tourists
- One cat village in Taiwan lures in nearly 1 million visitors a year
- Japanese “station master” cat generated $13.8 million after fame
The tiny island of Hujing off the coast of Taiwan is typical of these small towns: faced with a lack of jobs and an ageing population of just 200 people — the island knows it is in trouble.
However, it was the six remaining students at the community’s only school who came up with the idea of using the island’s hundreds of stray cats to try and lure in tourists.
Hujing Elementary School principal Lin Yan-ling said the students got the idea from the success of other cat towns and islands in the region.
“On some small islands in Japan — due to the abundance of felines — foreigners have been lured in and the cats have become famous tourist attractions leading to young people also returning and helping the community,” she told the ABC.
The thousands of reviews and online comments around existing cat islands and villages reveals that cat lovers willing to travel to see large groups of strays are a thriving demographic.
“A place totally for cat lovers!!! As me and my partner travel there during the rainy season, not a lot of cats roam around. But you will still see some kitties around still! Especially over at the cat cafes!,” wrote a traveller from Singapore about Taiwan’s Houtong cat Village.
“Even though I was only in Houtong for a limited amount of time, I definitely got excited by all the cat stuff I saw. They were even selling cat cookies. I will definitely visit Houtong again in the future and go to the Cat Village next time,” wrote another traveller from the Philippines.
Cats crowd around a village official as she carries a bag of food to the designated feeding place on Aoshima Island. (Reuters: Thomas Peter)
While there are no official rules for being designated a cat town or island, there are a few things to consider: cats for one, but as a result there needs to be programs to manage them as well as the development of associated shops, artwork, and various murals to please tourists.
How do you create a cat island from scratch?
In Hujing the concept has revolved around making cat-themed items to sell to tourists while inviting artists to the island to create cat-themed public art.
The students in Hujing have taken photographs of local cats to then custom print onto bags and cards made out of recycled clothes — they even turned the public mailbox outside the front of the school into a giant cat.
“The students hoped to create a series of cat island projects based on caring about the cats on the island as well as helping local tourism development,” said principal Lin.
“They also turn photos of the cats of Hujing into postcard sales, and then use the proceeds of the charity as a fund for cat food and veterinarian fees.”
The islanders hope Taiwan, which was home of the first ever cat cafe, will provide them with the crucial cat tourist demographic, however the cat is already out of the bag: Hujing is not the first town to allow cats to take over.
Houtong on Taiwan’s north coast is already famous as a “cat village”.
Staff, students and artists at Hujing Elementary School with a newly created cat mural using recycled materials. (Supplied: Hujing Elementary School)
The town’s population has declined since the 1990s to a reported 100 inhabitants by the mid 2000s, half that of the 200-something cat population.
Locals then began posting pictures of the cats online and surely enough cat lovers started turning up.
Today there are shops selling all things cats, as well as cafes and restaurants to cater to the tourists.
The village now draws nearly 1 million visitors a year, according to Taiwan’s annual visitor count, and is regularly listed as one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions.
This is the kind of revival students at Hujing Elementary School are hoping for, but they could be in for quite a catfight over tourists as Houtong is just a short train ride from the capital Taipei, making it popular and potentially more accessible for day trippers, whereas Hujing requires an hour long flight and then a boat trip.
The $10 million kitty that started it all
To complicate the matter, there’s actually international competition for the cat tourist dollar — Taiwan isn’t the only place that has realised the economic potential of cats, Japan has been in the cat tourism business for just as long.
The island of Aoshima in Japan receives boat loads of visitors every year, all eager to see the famous hordes of cats that swarm the island.
Home to just 20 people despite several hundred cats, the island has become known as a cat tourist pioneer.
Tama — a cat “station master” of a railway station in Japan — receives a birthday cake on her 16th birthday. (Reuters/Kyodo)
But cat tourism can actually be traced back to the story of one special cat named Tama.
In 2006, a declining regional rail company in Japan was desperate to increase passengers and revenue, until people started noticing Tama at a local shop at one of the stops — Tama would often greet the passengers as they disembarked.
When travellers started turning up just to meet Tama and take pictures of her, the rail company decided to position Tama as official “station master” complete with a miniature station master hat to top it off.
A ball-shaped cat sculpture hangs in a tree in Taiwan’s cat village Houtong. (Wikimedia: Kentagon)
Shops started selling t-shirts, hats, and all things Tama in just a couple of years Tama had reeled in an estimated $US10 million ($13.8 million) in revenue to the railways financial recovery, according to a study at Osaka University.
When she died in 2015, thousands of people attended her funeral and the railway company quickly appointed a successor — it’s this kind economic kitty miracle that attracted the attention of Hujing’s islanders.
Principal Lin thinks there is enough cat love to go round, but she is realistic about the chances of millions of dollars pouring into Hujing — if nothing else, the children will at least learn something and the cats will be well fed, she says.
“Let the school not only be a paradise for children, but also a paradise for cats.”