Not too long ago while on a hike at Wuliaojian (五寮尖) with a mate visiting from the UK, we bumped into an American chap taking his dog for a mountain stroll. It transpired that he had been living in Taiwan for around ten years now, so it’s safe to consider him an ex-pat-vet. We chatted enthusiastically for around half an hour about several things; the best routes to walk on the mountain, the latest news in English football (that’s “Soccer” to the ignorant) and swapped information of other local hikes and nearby scenic spots that we should investigate. Following on from the latter conversation, the topic of Taiwan’s tourism promotion came up. Well, lack thereof.
Though I’d wager many long time resident ex-pats would argue against this, but Taiwan is criminally overlooked by Western visitors. It seems to be principally known as a convenient and pleasant place to study Chinese; the accent is generally softer and easier to understand than that spoken in Mainland China, the Internet is unrestricted (Wi-Fi is available seemingly bloody everywhere), and the culture shock factor is considerably lower on this little island compared to it’s mahoosive next door neighbour.
I’ve lived here for a combined total of about 12 months now, and am frequently asked by folk back home and even some of my local friends here: what’s so good about Taiwan? Not in a tone that implies rudeness, but intrigue. Half of the people at home think I’m talking about Thailand, not Taiwan, and the other half seem to have no idea what exists here beyond microchips and factories. So, I enthusiastically tell them about my main hobbies here; biking, motorcycling, camping, hiking, river tracing, wallowing in wild hot springs, et al. I’ll mention the dirt-cheap travel fares, that you can surf within a couple of hours of Taipei City, and the fact that – unlike China – people don’t seem to give a chicken’s arse if you’re white skinned and don’t want to constantly take photos of you (some people may consider this a negative). To summarise, it’s cheap to travel, there’s lots to see, and it’s a pretty clean, developed country with a friendly population and decent grub. Suffice to say they are often shocked that they hadn’t already heard of this outdoor paradise. So why does no-one seem to know anything about it?
My first observation would be that traditionally the vast, vast majority of Taiwan’s tourism trade came from China, so most of the promotion handled itself. However, President Tsai Ying-Wen’s landslide victory of 2016 caused a sharp drop in visitors from the Mainland as the PRC see her as a pro-independence, and were clearly sending her a message by introducing a cap on the number of visas issued to Chinese tourists. Despite this, in 2016 Taiwan had a record amount of visitors from abroad, yet a drop of 20% less Chinese visitors still wasn’t enough to sabotage that.
However, data can be misleading. Did the other visitors spend more or less money than their Chinese counterparts? Conversely, where would the tourists spend their money? Are Japanese visitors more likely to spend in local restaurants whereas Chinese would rather pay all of their money to the tour company? Beyond speculation it’s impossible to tell. One Taipei-based tour group has told the NY Times in an article that holidaymakers from Thailand and Vietnam have increased sharply since 2016, alleging that they will spend around $400US per day – not including accommodation. This is a lot of dough, compared to my own daily expenditure while travelling as a tight-fisted backpacker anyway.
I noticed during a recent trip to Hualien (花蓮) that I heard some train announcements in Vietnamese and Indonesian Bahasa, and there are new language options on the Taipei MRT ticket machines to include more South East Asian countries. It would be prudent for the tourist board marketing department to set their sights on this demographic and push hard if the spending numbers in the above paragraph are to be believed, and it looks like they are heading in that direction. Thai nationals now temporarily have 30 days visa free until August 2018, and Malaysia benefit from the same arrangement, though permanently not temporarily. Indonesian and Vietnamese tourists are currently only granted 30 day visas if they are travelling with an approved tour group. It’s a slow process, but relaxing the tourist visa laws is heading the right way.
Promotion of Taiwan in the UK is pretty minimal, but getting better. The effort is going into it at least; I remember my shock when I saw a ‘Come to Taiwan’ advert on the side of a London bus for the first time in 2016, and when one of my mates sent me the following picture just two weeks ago.
They are clearly trying, but I’m not sure exactly what or how effective their tactics are. On the Taiwan Tourism Bureau website I found a few pseudo-artsy short promo videos, one of which follows the clearly fictional adventures of a group of perpetually over-excited Japanese girls that want to shop and eat absolutely everything in sight like a human Ms. Pacman, a milderly (middle aged/elderly) North American couple having what seems to be their last ever holiday due to the unintentionally ominous overtones during conversation, and a backpacker that sports a shark-tooth necklace (not joking) looking to “see the world through [his] own eyes”. It’s terribly cheesy, but the lack of a low production value makes it more difficult to laugh at, and easier to cringe and pity. I haven’t yet decided which is worse.
One idea that I genuinely believe has legs is to invest into and promote the film industry. Encourage Taiwanese production companies to create movies that appeal to other nations, and persuade foreign producers to use Taiwan as a filming location. If I had a penny every time someone told me of their plans to visit somewhere just because it’s in a film… well, I’d have a shitload of pennies. Probably couldn’t retire though. Anyway, Taiwan has that – to a very limited extent – with Juifen (九份) commonly believed to be the inspiration for Hayao Mayazaki’s “Spirited Away”, the internationally famous Japanese anime film from 2001. That’s what people say anyway, but after researching it myself some months ago I quickly found out that it was untrue. Sorry chaps. Another is Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” which, although set in Japan, was filmed entirely in Taiwan around the Taipei area. But I wonder how many people know that, as I certainly didn’t until today.
But back to my original point. You only need look as far as the aforementioned Thailand as an example of how film creates tourism demand. The Man With The Golden Gun. The Deer Hunter. American Gangster. The Beach. The Hangover II. As far as Western audiences are concerned, I feel that the latter two have the biggest influence in painting Thailand as a desirable holiday location; an exotic, sun-baked land full of friendly people (unless they are drug cartels), perfect beaches, delicious food, and cheap sin. Speaking of which, in the case of The Hangover II I dread to think how many groups of lads/ladettes tried to emulate that night. And succeeded.
One of the things I like about Taipei in particular is that it oozes a thick “cyberpunk” atmosphere; and by that I mean it blends futuristic architecture and technology with basic concrete buildings, tight alleyways, bright lighting, often drab weather and a high density population. On certain nights in certain locations I feel like I’m an extra in a Sci-fi movie, so I definitely wouldn’t have been surprised had Dennis Villeneuve wished to use it as a filming location for Blade Runner 2049. You missed a trick there, Taipei.
It’s a fair assumption that people are generally afraid of the unknown. What crazy person would book a holiday in some random country that they had no idea of what to expect? Seeing exotic locales within movies give them more familiarity and creates a desire to see these places, especially if the film is enjoyable. Taiwan has some of the most amazing landscape I’ve ever seen, and it’s not out of the realms of possibility for moviegoers to fall in love at the first sight of the island’s countryside beauty.
I know I did!
How do you think Taiwan can promote itself to more visitors?