Tue, Sep 10, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Expats play key role in boosting Taiwan’s tourism

Locally-based, foreign-born tourism professionals and entrepreneurs are convinced of Taiwan’s appeal — even if official efforts to promote it are often flat-footed

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

Cheryl Robbins leads a group of tourists during a visit to an indigenous community in Taitung.

Photo Courtesy of Cheryl Robbins

China’s abrupt announcement at the end of July that it would stop issuing permits to its citizens who wish to visit Taiwan independently was followed by rumors that Beijing may soon make it impossible for Chinese tour groups to come to the country. Some tourism professionals expressed panic, while others repeated what they’ve been saying for the past decade: If the industry is to thrive long term, it must cast its net further afield.

Of the 11.07 million foreign visitors Taiwan received last year, almost a quarter came from China. Other Asian countries and territories within five hours’ flying time accounted for well over half. At the same time, long-haul markets showed strong growth. While total arrivals increased by 3 percent compared to 2017, the number of visitors from the US rose by 3.3 percent, from Europe by 6.1 percent, and from Australia by 12.8 percent.

Locally-based foreign-born tourism professionals and entrepreneurs who have positioned themselves to serve the growing number of Western visitors are convinced of Taiwan’s appeal — even if they characterize official efforts to promote the country as flat-footed, or feel constrained by regulations.

In 2017, inbound tourists spent an average 6.39 nights in Taiwan, but there’s some evidence that those whose journeys take several hours might stay longer. In economic terms, therefore, they’re fish especially worth reeling in.

“Our clients tend to stay eight or nine days on the island, five or six of them touring, plus two or three before or after the tour for free time and self-guided travel,” says Mark Pemberton, founder and managing director of Life of Taiwan. (This reporter writes and consults for Life of Taiwan on an ad hoc basis.)

“Upward of 75 percent of our clients come from Western countries. I’d say another 10 percent are Westerners living in Asia. We also get a fair amount of Taiwanese-Americans doing homecoming trips,” he adds. For the time being, Life of Taiwan’s Web site and advertising are 100 percent English.

“We need to really understand what our clients want, and our obvious advantage is understanding what service levels and standards international tourists expect,” says Pemberton, an Englishman. “Local tour companies, it seems to me, focus too much on low prices, rather than really listening to their customers and curating tours to their needs. Being native English speakers gives us an advantage with regards to offering first-class service.”

TOUR-GUIDE LICENSE

Cheryl Robbins, who’s lived in Taiwan since 1989, is one of the few non-Taiwanese holding a local tour-guide license.

“There’s a lot to study for the tour guide licensing test, and after passing the written and oral tests, I had close to 100 hours of training. Getting a license wasn’t a huge investment in terms of money, but did take a lot of time,” says the Californian.

Her license and considerable experience notwithstanding, regulations stipulate that when Robbins guides a group, she has to work with a travel agency.

“Many agencies have no clue about specialty tourism. I’m trying to provide value-added, high quality tour products — but their mindset is ‘cheap and low quality,’” she says.

“Travel agents sometimes tell me ‘That’s too expensive,’ or ‘We can’t use that hotel because we don’t have a contract with them.’

Robbins says her clients want in-depth, unique experiences, but they also care about where they stay. She adds that they don’t mind spending a little extra if the travel agency doesn’t have a special rate.

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