Sat, Jul 09, 2011 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Falling for the billion-dollar mirage

There were two reminders this week that the oft-touted Chinese bonanza that Taiwan was supposed to reap from the government’s steamroller drive toward closer cross-strait ties might not be quite the pot of gold so many have claimed or hoped. Despite its linguistic and cultural ties, it appears Taiwan is simply the latest country to be taken in by the “billion-dollar Chinese market” mirage.

The Tourism Bureau announced on Thursday that Chinese tourist arrivals were down 30 percent last month compared with June last year, while May had seen a 16 percent drop from the year before. A Ministry of Education official said 975 Chinese students would enroll at private universities for the fall semester, although 2,141 slots had been approved and schools had accepted 1,263.

Many reasons have been given for the reduction in tourists: everything from health and safety worries — the plasticizer scare and the Alishan (阿里山) derailment — to renewed competition from neighboring countries, while the low student turnout was blamed on a lack of publicity. More worrying was the comment from an associate professor at Tamkang University, who said more than 1,000 Chinese high schools had a single token graduate apply for a spot at a Taiwanese school — an indication that without pressure from Beijing, Taiwan might be seeing only 200 or 300 students this fall, if any.

However, the truth of the matter is that the number of potential tourists, just like the number of potential students, has always been unrealistic, as have the expectations that an influx of Chinese tourists would rejuvenate the economy.

Official statistics showed there were 1.63 million Chinese visitors last year, or an average of 4,560 a day — more than the 3,000 daily limit when Taiwan first opened its doors to Chinese tour groups in mid-2008, but a far cry from the revised quota of 7,200 or the 10,000 a day President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) once envisioned. Likewise, the launch of the Chinese free independent travel program is unlikely to achieve the touted 90,000 visitors by the end of this year.

When regular cross-strait charter flights were announced in June 2008, it turned out none of the Chinese airlines involved were interested in flights to Kaohsiung and only one wanted to fly to Hualien. Lawmakers and local leaders in central and southern Taiwan complained that they were being overlooked, but the truth was and is that what Chinese tourists want to see first are the big attractions — the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101 in Taipei, Alishan, Sun Moon Lake and Taroko Gorge. It is the same the world over — just as tourists to China head straight for the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, while visitors to Egypt focus on Cairo and the pyramids.

There are many other things to see in those countries, but when travelers are making their first visit to a country and time is short, they want to see the sites that everyone knows.

Ministry of Education and university officials, likewise, should not have been surprised that most of the Chinese students wanted to go to schools in Taipei and none were interested in National Penghu University of Science and Technology.

If Taiwan really wants to compete in the Chinese market, whether for tourists or students, it is going to have to tailor its offerings to what the Chinese want. That means accepting that Taipei will remain the top spot for first-time visitors.

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