Tourism crisis might be blessing in disguise

By Wu Yi-yen 吳怡彥  / 

Thu, Sep 01, 2016 - Page 8

Since the presidential election in January, Beijing has reportedly been reducing the number of Chinese visitors to Taiwan. This has sparked a mixed reaction, with pessimists expressing concern over reduced tourism revenues and weakened economic ties with China, while optimists view it as the push Taiwan needs for an economic transformation.

For the latter, it is an opportunity for the nation to diversify and improve its tourism industry to attract more foreign visitors. What should Taiwan do?

Before proceeding to consider potential overseas markets, it would be helpful to look at some statistics. In Taiwan, Chinese tourists are often negatively perceived. While some criticisms are justified, a majority of them stems from differences in political ideologies.

For instance, it is generally believed that Chinese tourists spend less money on shopping than their Japanese counterparts. This might be correct for now, but things might change as the Chinese economy grows and more independent tourists come to Taiwan.

A walk along the east coast would confirm that since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office, the number of Chinese tourists have slumped. From Hualien County’s Guangfu (光復), Ruisuei (瑞穗) and Yuli (玉里) townships to Taitung County’s Guanshan (關山) and Chihshang (池上) townships and Taitung city, restaurants, hotels, shops and tour bus operators have been complaining about declining business.

When asked to comment on the government’s plans to attract more tourists from Southeast Asia, the typical response is that markets in Southeast Asia are generally 10 years behind Taiwan and the cultural differences and language barriers pose long-term challenges.

How should Taiwan respond to the shrinking number of Chinese tourists? If the transition of power in Taiwan has indeed prompted Beijing to abort policies that benefit Taiwan, the nation must respond by turning the crisis into an opportunity.

First, Chinese investors own large shares in major corporations in Taiwan, including travel agencies, hotels, shops, tour bus operators and amusement parks. While their widespread presence has a lot to do with their political and economic ambitions, the declining number of Chinese tourists could cause significant losses to their businesses.

Considering that many of the investors are closely affiliated with powerful government officials, Beijing should soon allow more tourists to visit Taiwan.

Second, how can Taiwan change the nation’s tourism culture and instill aesthetics and a sense of beauty into everyday life? Over the past few years, there have been significant improvements in the facilities and amenities at tourist sites, notably at train stations and public restrooms. However, these are only the first steps. The government must build major transportation networks, including expanding the high-speed rail, subway systems and YouBike services to help tourists travel easily.

There should also be variety in accommodation options, from star-rated hotels to cozy bed-and-breakfasts.

Finally, it is essential to explore new markets in Southeast Asia, as well as Europe and the US. Cultural differences might be an obstacle, but things might begin to change in a few years, as Southeast Asian immigrants in Taiwan bring about further cultural exchanges.

Southeast Asia is a big market with a large population. It is likely that Taiwan could find a niche market for its tourism industry. Of course, it is also important that Taiwanese show they are hospitable and friendly.

After all, looking down at your customer while trying to sell them goods never works.

Wu Yi-Yen is an associate professor in Tungnan University’s tourism department.

Translated by Tu Yu-an