Number of tourist visits to Taiwan continues to rise

ROOM FOR GROWTH: The number of visitors to Taiwan rose 14 percent last year, and tourism firms are betting Chinese tourists will provide an even larger boost

By Jackie Lin  /  STAFF REPORTER

Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 10

Last year, an unprecedented 3.37 million foreign tourists visited Taiwan, marking growth of 14 percent year-on-year and moving a step closer toward the government's goal of luring 5 million visitors by 2008.

All major markets in the region reported marked growth in tourism, with the biggest increase from Singapore, at 42.17 percent, followed by Japan's 26.71 percent and South Korea's 23.24 percent, statistics by the Tourism Bureau show.

Many in the industry have bet on the possible influx of Chinese tourists -- if restrictions are relaxed -- to spur growth.

However, President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) New Year address appeared to put a damper on their longed-for tourism bonanza, just when operators were getting excited following the 10-day visit by Shao Qiwei (邵琪偉), director of China's National Tourism Administration, late last year.

Chen's announcement on the first day of the year indicated that the government will adopt tighter economic and trade policies with China by shifting toward "active management, effective opening" from the "active opening, effective management" stance that has been in place since 2001.

But an academic downplayed the negative impact.

"The government's policies are like waves, coming and going. There seems to be no absolute," said Chao Chih-liang (趙芝良), assistant professor of tourism at Providence University. "Operators can only make sure they're prepared for when the opportunities strike."

Chinese tourists

While policies may change, tourism players like the owner of the upscale resort The Lalu (涵碧樓) at Sun Moon Lake (日月潭) in Nantou County said the trend toward enhanced exchanges across the Taiwan Strait was unstoppable.

"According to my understanding, the opening up strategy should be implemented by the end of March, boosting the TAIEX to 8,000 points," Lai Cheng-i (賴正鎰), head of the Taichung-based Shining Group (鄉林集團) which owns The Lalu, told the Taipei Times after a press event early this month.

Shining Group is expanding its locations, with two five-star hotel projects in Taichung and Hualien expected to completed by the end of next year.

Formosa Plastics Group (台塑集團) plans to invest more than NT$20 billion (US$623 million) in establishing theme parks, art villages and hotels in Chiayi to link up with the renowned Alishan (阿里山) scenic spot.

China Steel Corp (中鋼) is also ready to build resorts at the Paolai Hot Spring Area in Kaohsiung. The Paolai Hot Spring Area is a NT$2.7 billion build-operate-transfer (BOT) project which China Steel is scheduled to start building this year.

Service a challenge

After the accommodation and entertainment needs are met, the biggest challenges will be finding ways to quickly boost service quality and effectively advertise the nation's specialties in order to place Taiwan on the world's tourism map, Providence University's Chao said.

"If we pretended that we were foreigners who knew no Mandarin, we'd find that traveling around in Taiwan is very difficult, as there's insufficient detailed information in English -- either on road signs or brochures," she said.

As globalization further intensifies competition among countries to offer quality service in tourism, this sector needs to become more service-oriented. Although Taiwan appears to have a late start in its ambition to attract more foreign tourists, since neighboring countries have been far more proactive, Taiwan has unique attractions, including its welcoming people, its culture and natural attractions.

In this respect, the Tourism Bureau this year has designed a Tourism Flagship Plan to promote the nation's top attractions and cultural festivals.

The eight flagship sights include the Taipei 101 skyscraper, National Palace Museum, Love River (愛河) in Kaohsiung, Yushan (玉山), Sun Moon Lake, Alishan, Kenting National Park and Taroko Gorge (太魯閣).

Also trumpeted are the four specialties that can be expected in Taiwan -- cuisine, night markets, hospitality and an around-the-clock tourism environment -- and cultural events like the Taiwan Lantern Festival, Yenshui Fireworks Festival and Sanyi Wood Carving Art Festival.

Limited Budget

As rich as this might sound, the scanty budget allocated for the Tourism Bureau always leaves officials scratching their heads to come up with alluring campaigns.

The bureau has a budget of around NT$320 million this year earmarked for overseas marketing activities, said Jean Huang (黃靜惠), director of the bureau's international affairs division.

The amount is the same as last year.

"Marketing is like burning money, but it's crucial to strengthen people's impressions by mentioning Taiwan again and again. Placing a seconds-long commercial on CNN costs tens of thousands of NT dollars. The budget we have is just not enough," she said.

Hong Kong has designated this year as the Discover Hong Kong Year. To attract the world's attention, it has budgeted around NT$2.8 billion -- nearly nine times the amount Taiwan has set aside -- for various promotions, Huang said.

"Taiwan is not well-known internationally and creative publicity ideas are therefore important," she said.

Recent promotions

Since 2004, the bureau has eyed different kinds of media to raise the nation's profile around the world.

Campaigns in Japan have included colorfully painted Yamanote trains -- which circle Tokyo's downtown -- and print advertising messages on the transparent covers of savings bankbooks offered by Japan's post offices.

The reaction has also been strong to a campaign that featured pop diva Chang Hui-mei (張惠妹), better known as A-mei (阿妹), as a spokeswoman to lure Southeast Asian tourists.

Step by step, the bureau expects to attract 3.75 million foreign visitors this year, which has been named the Taiwan Youth Travel Year and targets backpackers.

But to prosper, tourism infrastructure and services cannot be built overnight, and therefore the government will need to examine ways to create a ripple effect to help make the industry thrive, Chao said.