A group of children, aged four to 14, squeal with joy as they wave bars of handmade verbena soap — shaped variously as a heart, a rose and a teddy bear — in the air.
“Can we come back again?” they plead with their parents as they say goodbye to Cha Shan Fang (茶山房), one of Taiwan’s oldest soap factories.
Founded in 1957, Cha Shan Fang is well known for producing old-fashioned soap. Recently, however, it has earned a reputation for its factory tourism, a new kind of leisure activity that combines historical tours of the company with do-it-yourself activities.
Taiwan has recently seen a boom in the number of factories that actively engage visitors in the manufacturing process. About 134 factories nationwide said that they provide factory tourism and cater to individuals, families and groups who want to gain hands on knowledge of a particular product.
Most of these factories, however, do not really fit into the profile of an ideal weekend destination — transportation, in particular, leaves much to be desired. For example, there are no railway stops close to Cha Shan Fang, buses only come once every half hour and taxis are hard to get But that’s because Cha Shan Fang wasn’t originally intended as a tourist attraction — at least not when Lin Yi-cai (林義財), the company’s owner, moved his business to Sansia (三峽) in the early 1980s.
What Lin had in mind was a larger factory with bigger production capacity for his star product, Floating Soap (浮樂脫藥皂), an all-natural lightweight soap that at the time was selling 100,000 bars per month.
Soap was the main household cleansing agent in Taiwan before the 1980s. Soon however, it was overtaken by shower gels, dish wash and detergents. Unprepared for the market change, Lin’s soap business, as well as his 200-ping factory, became obsolete.
In 2010, however, the Lin family gave the factory a NT$5 million makeover. They launched a new product line, built a do-it-yourself soap making classroom and a museum housing collections of advertisements, newspapers clippings and documentaries on various soap products.
“Soap is more than a commodity,” said Lin Ru-feng (林如芳), the museum’s curator. She pointed out that the company’s long history in Taiwan draws a lot of interest — especially among the older generation.
“Today we see ourselves not only as a factory but a place where people can come and discover the vitality of traditional manufacturing,” she said.
Factory tourism — a business model and leisure option that has been around for years in Europe and America — is fairly new to Taiwan.
The niche was first promoted by the government in 2003, as it became clear that Taiwan’s manufacturing industry was on the decline. Today, factory tourism is seen as a revitalization strategy for established businesses like soap, textiles, pastries and handicrafts.
“[We] have since counseled 134 businesses nationwide, more than 80 of which were successfully transformed into tourism factories,” said Jason Chen (陳長雄), a manager at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (工業技術研究院).
Taiwanese are clearly developing a like for the factories, he said. A total of 10 million visits were made to these destinations over the past eight years, with the number increasing by a million people per year. Revenue is expected to top NT$1.8 billion this year.
In August, a Web-based application featuring a global positioning system was launched to help visitors with smartphones and tablets locate factories more easily. An English version is due to be released next year to meet a growing demand of foreign visitors.