Several days ago, during a government meeting on finance and economics, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said his administration intended to speed up the implementation of its “golden decade” plan through a series of liberalization measures and incentives. He emphasized that the service sector and particularly tourism, were the key to improving income distribution and creating more jobs. He also said he wanted to see 10 million tourists visiting the nation annually by the end of his second term.
Purely in terms of tourist destinations, Taiwan is in a far better position than Hong Kong or Singapore, yet it attracts far fewer travellers. For example, last year just over 6 million foreigners came to Taiwan and 30 percent were Chinese. By comparison, Singapore had 13 million and Hong Kong 40 million.
Is Ma’s goal of boosting tourist traffic to 10 million annually realistic, or is it just more pie-in-the-sky thinking?
Over the past two decades, 17 international carriers, including British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, Swissair, Quantas and American Airlines have stopped operating routes to Taiwan.
This has had a significant negative impact on the number of overseas tourists and the amount of freight coming to, or passing through, the country. It has also frustrated the government’s efforts to raise the nation’s international profile.
Why did these airlines pull out of Taiwan? And has the government looked into the matter or put measures in place to address the situation?
It has been overly protective of domestic carriers, allowing them to undercut the competition and this has forced foreign airlines out of the market. Some US carriers, such as United Airlines and Northwest Airlines do still fly to Taipei, but they no longer operate direct routes: passengers bound for the US have to transfer in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport or in other cities in the region.
In the near future, international airports in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are set to become more deregulated and grow into major centers for passenger and freight transport. That is good for them, but bad news for Taiwan, which will become even more marginalized as a result of the reduction in the number of direct flights to the nation.
In April 2006, China Airlines introduced a route between Taipei and Abu Dhabi, the only direct flight between Taiwan and the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates government welcomed this move and offered several incentives, including discounted refueling and exemptions from certain fees such as for landing and parking at Abu Dhabi International Airport. The route proved very popular for several years and tickets were often difficult to come by because many Southeast Asian passengers flew the route and transferred in Abu Dhabi to proceed to other Middle Eastern destinations.
In 2009, however, China Airlines decided to discontinue the route, claiming it was not profitable. I myself flew this route on many occasions and was there for the maiden flight. I find it immensely regrettable that China Airlines did not try harder to expand its Middle Eastern passenger base or develop tourism there.
How does the government intend to expand the tourist industry? Ma wants to see more deregulation and incentives, but it is debatable whether this rather vague directive will be enough on its own.