For Taiwan’s tourism industry, it’s been a white-knuckle year.
Some major players didn’t make it to the third quarter. The five-star Tayih Landis Hotel Tainan closed at the end of June, a few months after the shuttering of the equally upmarket Landis Taichung.
Both suffered from the almost-complete disappearance of foreign visitors. According to Tourism Bureau statistics, between April and September last year, international arrivals in Taiwan totaled 5.89 million. In the same period this year, the number was a mere 66,190.
Photo: Steven Crook
For others, business hasn’t been bad, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
In mid-March, Chris Kuo (郭哲均), former chairman of the Yilan County Lodging Association, told the Taipei Times he thought it likely that several homestays in the region would go under if the crisis didn’t ease by the end of April. Kuo, who with his family owns and manages three B&Bs in the Luodong (羅東) area, now says he’s not heard of an unusual number of homestays closing down this year.
“Actually, the tourism industry in parts of Taiwan, such as Yilan, Hualien, Taitung and the outlying islands, has done very well since the summer,” he says. Kuo attributes this primarily to the government’s success in preventing COVID-19 from gaining a foothold in Taiwan — “a safe environment means people are willing to travel,” he says — and secondly to the subsidy programs that the government has rolled out.
Photo: Steven Crook
Before the summer vacation began, the government announced NT$3.9 billion worth of: per-day subsidies for group tours; accommodation subsidies for individual travelers; “buy one, get one free” offers for Taiwan Tour Bus excursions; and extra funding so city or county governments could create events that would attract leisure visitors. In August, a further NT$1.6 billion was set aside to support tourism.
In some parts of the country, the combination of subsidies and Taiwanese not being able to travel abroad seems to have caused record-setting visitor traffic. On July 22, for instance, the Taipei Times reported that, on the previous Sunday, Penghu Airport handled more passengers in a single day than ever before in its 43 years of operation.
Photo courtesy of Mandarin Oriental, Taipei
Looking to the next few months, Kuo says: “Whether the government provides more subsidies or not, tourism will still be active, so long as the virus doesn’t spread in Taiwan.”
The owners of A Touch of Zen Guest House (眷村戀影民宿) in Kaohsiung’s Zuoying (左營) District agree with Kuo inasmuch as things look much better now than they did a few months into this year. The B&B experienced a deep trough in bookings from mid-February into May, but has done reasonably well since June.
“Kaohsiung isn’t high on anyone’s list of top tourist destinations, so we didn’t get the same domestic tourism bump that Kenting or Penghu did. Our business still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. However, it’s probably a lot closer to that mark than it would be had the government not launched the subsidy program,” says co-owner Yueh Shu-wen (岳淑雯), adding that other Kaohsiung B&B operators they’ve talked to have had a similar experience.
Photo courtesy of Mandarin Oriental, Taipei
Yueh describes the impact of the subsidies as “significant.”
“We have a single room available on weeknights for exactly NT$1,000, the amount of the accommodation credit the government was giving, and solo travelers liked that they could pay absolutely nothing for their room for the night.”
Bookings for that room rose significantly once the credit became available, she adds.
She also noticed that couples coming for an event, “who would normally have stayed one night, sometimes stayed a second night to cash in on the credit for each person.”
For those who’ve been following the travails of the tourism industry, one of the more dramatic developments came in late May, when the five-star Mandarin Oriental, Taipei announced it would suspend the accommodation side of its business for an indefinite period effective June 1
Likewise, the hotel’s decision last month to reopen its rooms and suites to guests starting Dec. 1 has intrigued industry watchers.
In line with company policy, General Manager Karan Berry won’t say how much the six-month hiatus is projected to cost the hotel. Nor will he reveal how its food and beverage outlets have fared during the pandemic. He is, however, keen to express his gratitude to Taiwan’s government, which he describes as “exceptionally supportive.”
“It goes without saying that, with many global travel restrictions in place, the domestic market will be the primary focus for the upcoming months. However, we remain optimistic that wider travel will return to Taiwan. Our city remains attractive not only for leisure travel, but also for business. We look forward to flight connections gradually resuming over the coming months,” Berry says.
Acknowledging the vulnerability of the hospitality and tourism sectors to world events, he stresses: “Experience also shows that sentiment towards traveling does tend to bounce back.”
To attract Taiwan residents, Mandarin Oriental, Taipei is offering packages that include a NT$3,000 per room dining credit. The hotel has offered spa and food and beverage credits in the past, says Berry, but usually for NT$1,500 or NT$2,000.
“The package we’re currently promoting certainly offers more value,” he says.
In recent years, before the pandemic, the number of Taiwanese going overseas exceeded the number of non-Taiwanese entering Taiwan by a ratio of approximately 3:2. When countries which Taiwanese especially like to visit — Japan being no. 1 — finally reopen their borders, outbound travel volume from Taiwan will likely exceed inbound travel volume, predicts Sun Ya-yen (孫雅彥), a senior lecturer in the University of Queensland’s Business School who researches the economic impacts and carbon footprint of tourism.
“Companies risk putting all their eggs in one basket if they rely on domestic travelers. It’s very likely they’ll suffer if people turn to international travel once restrictions are lifted,” says Sun, who taught in Taiwan until 2018.
She advises tourism businesses that have successfully reoriented themselves to the domestic market to stay in touch with potential customers in other countries via social media and e-mail newsletters.
Sun also urges the government to have “a proactive attitude to travel-bubble agreements, especially with important inbound markets such as Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea. This will ensure a sufficient in-flow of travelers when our people are eager to get out of the country.”
There’s been much talk about establishing travel bubbles since the summer, but no arrangements including Taiwan have been finalized.
Government and industry leaders should also come together to establish an accreditation system that verifies businesses’ hygiene and health practices, Sun says. This, she thinks, would “bolster public confidence by recognizing individual businesses that follow SOPs in terms of cleaning and social distancing.”
Before a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available, it’s far from certain that Taiwan’s government will dare reopen its airports and harbors to any foreign tourists. No politician wants to be remembered as the person who unlocked the door and let the virus in. The tourism sector might have to make do with residents’ dollars and government aid for a good while yet.
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