The government is now actively seeking to attract a suitable developer.
After long being off the beaten path in terms of the global tourism market, Taiwan appears to be finally making a name for itself.
Last year was a record year for international visitors to Taiwan, with more than 10.6 million arrivals from around the globe, primarily from Asia. Those visitors spent over US$15.1 billion, contributing significantly to Taiwan’s economy. On top of that, Taiwan recorded 180 million trips within the island by its own citizens, a figure that the Ministry of Transportation and Communications intends to raise even higher to 200 million within the coming two or three years.
Looking around at Taiwan’s neighbors – who play dual roles as both sources of tourists and competitors for regional and global travelers – it is quickly apparent that despite its beautiful scenery, vibrant cities, delicious food, and unparalleled hospitality, something is missing in Taiwan: The country does not have a single international-standard theme park.
Disney operates parks in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Universal Studios has a presence in Singapore, Osaka, and Beijing. Legoland has set up in Malaysia. Home-grown brands Sanrio (Hello Kitty) and Lotte have established their respective parks in Japan and South Korea, with Lotte World in Seoul home to the world’s largest indoor theme park.
Taiwan, on the other hand, has only small-scale domestic amusement parks that are neither well-known among international travelers nor even particularly popular with domestic customers. Taiwanese or locally based expatriates looking to enjoy top-of-the-line roller coasters, performances, and other experiences that are standard at international theme parks have little choice but to go abroad to find those facilities.
“When we first moved to Taiwan seven or eight years ago, we went to Tokyo Disneyland once or twice,” says Dan Silver, AmCham Taipei’s standing vice chairman, whose children are now aged 11 and 13. They have since outgrown Disneyland. “There comes a point where kids get a little bit bored with that because it appeals to a certain age group,” he explains. “The ones that excite my kids the most now are back in the States.”
American theme-park developers have only been looking to international markets for the past few decades, a trend that has been gaining momentum slowly but steadily since the launch of Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. At that time, the Japanese economy was booming and its large domestic market was enough to justify the years of preparatory work and millions of dollars in investment. Japan’s economic growth may have leveled off since then, but Tokyo Disneyland still pulls in the visitors, primarily Japanese. It is consistently one of Disney’s most profitable properties.
Since the 1980s, of course, China has emerged as an even more formidable economic powerhouse, with more than 10 times the population of Japan. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, Disney looked westward, opening its first theme park in the PRC in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in 2005, and not entering the mainland until last year with its US$5.5 billion Shanghai mega-development.
Disney’s entree into the mainland market came at quite a cost, however, as the company behind the development is a joint venture in which Disney has only a 43% stake, with the rest coming under the umbrella of the state-owned Shanghai Shendi Group. Regardless, the move is likely to pay off, despite the gauntlet thrown down by Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group, which has targeted to compete with Disney in Guangzhou and smaller markets. But what Wanda has in money and ambition, it lacks in experience, prompting industry observers to conclude that Disney will retain a competitive edge, at least for some time.
With Disney working so closely with the Chinese government, the chances of a Disney park coming to Taiwan are slim, to say the least. Furthermore, the lessons observable from Disney’s profitable development in Tokyo and its struggling Hong Kong park suggest that Taiwan would not be a good fit for a Disneyworld. As the Hong Kong park has learned the hard way, relying chiefly on international visitors is highly risky. The large domestic market in Japan and brand loyalty of Japanese visitors is the primary factor behind Tokyo Disneyland’s success.
Questions of size and content
With those factors in mind then, which theme park developers would be the best fit for Taiwan? Smaller, regional American parks such as Six Flags, Busch Gardens, and Knott’s Berry Farm may not have the high degree of brand recognition of Disney or Universal Studios, but their popularity in their home markets with young people over the age of 12 would likely translate into success in Taiwan in appealing to both domestic residents and international travelers. Another potential advantage is the large number of Taiwanese who are familiar with theme parks from their experience traveling, studying, or living in the United States.
Tang Wei-yau, director of the Domestic Tourism Division of Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, says that Invest Taiwan, the office under the Executive Yuan responsible for investment promotion, is now actively working to attract internationally branded and/or managed theme parks, primarily by offering preferential tax breaks and deals on land acquisition. Those efforts have succeeded in generating interest, he says.
“We’ve had a lot of large international theme park companies come to visit,” Tang notes. Due to considerations of confidentiality, he was unable to say which companies have expressed interest in Taiwan.
Eric Lin, director of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s international department, says that land acquisition and other issues have served as obstacles to the establishment of international theme parks in Taiwan. Multiple government bureaus would need to be involved to close a deal with a major theme park developer, he says.
While stressing that the suitability to the Taiwan market of the scale and content of a new theme park would be vital to its success, Lin says he hopes that such a project could go forward in the near future.
In its position paper in the 2016 Taiwan White Paper, AmCham Taipei’s Travel and Tourism Committee specifically suggested that the government actively promote the development of international-branded theme parks as a way to help upgrade Taiwan’s tourism industry. Citing examples such as Universal Studios Singapore, Ocean Park in Hong Kong, and Tokyo Disneyland, the paper noted that successful theme parks are highly useful in attracting international tourists.
The White Paper observed that international theme park developers including MGM and Paramount have previously explored the possibility of investing in developments in Taiwan, only to lose interest for reasons including a lack of government policy support, uncertainties regarding land acquisition, and the amount of red tape in the licensing process.
To address these potential obstacles to securing international theme park investment, the White Paper included two major recommendations. The first was to assist potential investors with land availability. With most large parcels of land in Taiwan controlled by state-owned companies such as Taiwan Sugar, the document noted, it would be helpful to have policies in place to facilitate the long-term lease of idle plots at a competitive rate.
The second recommendation was to streamline the development and licensing process and make it more transparent and streamlined. Major international developers could be contacted for suggestions based on their experience regarding what has worked and what hasn’t during their years of operations in different markets.
“Taiwan has a lot to learn from existing international theme parks,” says Pauline Leung, co-chair of the Travel and Tourism Committee. “We should import that kind of know-how rather than try to gain it on our own, because we can’t afford to learn lessons from trial and error.”
Leung cites the tragic accident at the Formosa Fun Coast water park in New Taipei City in 2015 – in which an explosion killed 15 people and injured more than 500 – as an example of the importance of importing global safety standards and best practices.
Transportation access is also a major consideration that is often overlooked by Taiwanese theme parks, Leung said. “You have to consider people coming in from different parts of Taiwan, and on holidays all the cars coming in,” Leung says. “And you’ll need a very large parking area.”
Both Leung and Silver regard Taoyuan as an ideal location for an international-scale theme park, for several reasons. Among these are the availability of large plots of land, proximity to Taiwan’s main international airport and largest population cluster, plus convenient access to Taiwan’s west coast cities via the high-speed rail.
Silver said a globally known theme park would likely put Taiwan on the radar of even more international travelers, while creating jobs and bringing other benefits through the economic ecosystem that accompanies such developments. It would also raise Taiwan’s international profile in general, an important element considering Taiwan’s exclusion from many international organizations.
Ultimately, Silver says, such a theme park would provide a platform for more of the world to appreciate the friendly, welcoming spirit of Taiwan. “I’ve often thought that Taiwan is already the happiest place on earth,” he says. “Just imagine if you put a theme park here.”