WE OFTEN FORGET that the place where we live is "Ilha Formosa" -- the beautiful island. It's only when others remind us that we discover that there are a lot of interesting places to go in Taiwan. Following several foreign media reports on traveling in Taiwan, the National Geographic Traveler Magazine published a 12-page article about it in this month's issue. Such articles always report that Taroko Gorge and the East Coast leave a deep impression on foreign visitors. But on Oct 28, the Chinese-language China Times reported that the Taroko Express is having trouble selling tickets. These news reports reveal several things.
One is that Taiwan has a lot of potential for tourism, but needs more media coverage to promote it globally. Another is that to develop further, the tourist industry still needs to learn the necessary basic skills, such as solving the transportation problem.
When I moved to Hualien four years ago, I had heard about the famous tilting train. But I have never had the chance to travel on it. Someone like myself, who is not used to booking tickets on the Internet, not only doesn't have the opportunity to travel on the Taroko Express, but often doesn't even have a seat when traveling on a normal express train. As Hualien is isolated because of inconvenient transportation, it's no wonder that many elderly Hualien residents ardently look forward to the construction of the planned Suhua freeway.
But there is an advantage to this disadvantage. The geographical isolation of the East Coast has helped preserve the natural landscape of Hualien and Taitung, making it an important economic foundation. The construction of the Suhua freeway will only quicken the destruction of this landscape.
Yet in Hualien and Taitung itself there are still calls demanding the construction of the freeway because many people still believe that it will attract more tourists to the region. Because of this, the freeway has become a campaign tool, a vote-winner on both the local and national level. If the efforts to mobilize people and exercise pressure that the Hualien government has spent over years fighting for the freeway had been spent on demanding better service from the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), the transportation situation would have improved a long time ago.
The TRA has a near-monopoly on the development of transportation and tourism in eastern Taiwan. But there is plenty of room for improvement in its service. An example are the long lines at the ticket windows at the Taipei Railway Station and Hualien Station. Even when there are a lot of people waiting, there is no increase in the number of ticket sellers. It's even harder to buy a ticket on holidays and there is very little flexibility in the number of trains. The foreign-language service could also be better. In short, the TRA needs to be more flexible and willing to adjust its services to meet demand.
The tourism industry has eagerly awaited the relaxation of the regulations for Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan. But it has forgotten to develop other foreign tourism. Stories about travel in Taiwan that appear in European and US media prove that there is a lot of unused tourism potential. But if the government wants to attract foreign tourists, there is a lot of fundamental work to be done.
An example is maps: when traveling in some countries, every time one arrives at a place, one can find clear maps of the area. Many of these maps include recommended itineraries, and even three-dimensional pictures of some buildings in the area. Maps in Taiwan, however, often only show roads and road names. For people who can't read Chinese, such maps are difficult to use because their knowledge of the area is based not on street names, but on some characteristic or familiar landmarks, like McDonald's restaurants, gas stations, 7-Elevens, or prominent buildings. Taiwan's tourist maps show that the industry doesn't really understand how to attract foreign tourists.
A lot of money has been spent on building more facilities for tourism. But these facilities often cover up the natural beauty of the landscape the same way smearing layer after thick layer of make-up on the face of a pretty girl covers up her natural beauty. Beibin Park (北濱公園) and Nanbin Park (南濱公園) in Hualien are prime examples. The beautiful lawns and slopes have been covered over with a variety of facilities. More frustrating is that some dilapidated facilities have not been renovated, while brand new facilities were erected right next to them.
If Hualien really wants to attract more tourists, building a freeway is not the way. The way to implement sustainable management is to first make sure there is a good foundation for a quality tourism experience.
Chen Yi-ling is an assistant professor in the Department of Local Studies at National Hualien University of Education.
Translated by Anna Stiggelbout