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.
Chen said the model has opened up an alternative path for traditional industries that wish to boost their market performance.
The metamorphosis of old factories into tourist destinations, however, is no easy task.
“We had no idea what factory tourism was in the beginning. We even flew out to Japan to find answers,” said Lee Ku-tsung (李坤聰), public relations manager of Kuo Yuan Ye Foods Co. Ltd (郭元益), a household name for wedding pastries.
“In the past, we concentrated on making the best pastries. But now, we also need to focus on ways of reaching out,” to the public, Lee added.
Kuo Yuan Ye set up a green concept building next to its old establishment in Taoyuan County last year. Visitors are invited to make their own pineapple cake in a spacious room before watching how experienced bakers do it in the factory.
“Factory tourism is a great platform to promote business,” Lee explained. He added that with fewer and fewer people getting married and ordering traditional pastries, they need to expand their target customers, meet new demands and — most importantly — let people know they offer a quality product.
“What better way to do that than inviting them in for a tour?”
Chang Chen-ling (張鎮凌), a manager at White Wood House (白木屋), a local cake company established in 1997, said that factory staff also benefit from more visitors.
Each employee is reminded of their importance and are encouraged by visitor applause, said Chang as he introduced an assembly line.
The company motto, “happiness,” is thus delivered to both the consumer and the producer through this process, while enhancing the brand’s image, he added.
“Incorporating tourism in all industrial sectors is an unstoppable trend,” said Chang, who is optimistic about the niche’s future growth.
■ Services provided by these factories vary. Some require an entrance fee, others are free, charging only for the for do-it-yourself materials (NT$50 to NT$300). It’s best to call the factories up before setting off because the operating hours are different and some only accept appointments from large tour groups.
Cha Shan Fang (茶山房), 64-10 Baiji Rd, Sansia Dist, New Taipei City (新北市三峽區白雞路64之10號), tel: (02) 2671-4400. On the Net: www.teasoap.com.tw
Kuo Yuan Ye Foods Co. Ltd (郭元益), 1, Ln 9, Chinnian Rd, Yangmei City, Taoyuan County (桃園縣楊梅市青年路9巷1號), tel: (03) 464-3545. On the Net: www.kuos.com
White Wood House (白木屋), 6, Alley 22, Ln 813, Gaoshi Rd, Yangmei City, Taoyuan County (桃園縣楊梅市高獅路813巷22弄6號), tel: (03) 496-5757. On the Net: www.wwhouse.com.tw