Both economic and political considerations are behind the move to reduce the island’s dependence on visitors from China.
Taiwan is aiming to attract more Muslim visitors from Southeast Asia in a bid to diversify its flagging tourism market, which has suffered from overdependence on China. Once the source of 40% of Taiwan’s 10 million annual visitors, China has restricted group tours to the island since the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidency in 2016. Without the influx of Chinese visitors, Taiwan’s tourism market has cooled dramatically, recording anemic 0.46% growth in 2017.
The DPP, wary of Beijing’s desire to annex Taiwan, has sought to reduce Chinese leverage over the island’s economic affairs. As part of the New Southbound Policy, a recasting of former President Lee Teng-hui’s Go South initiative, Taiwan is wooing tourists from Southeast Asia. While the Vietnam and the Philippines are the fastest-growing markets, Taiwan is also seeking to attract visitors from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Considering that it has only a small domestic Muslim population, Taiwan may not seem like an obvious holiday destination for adherents of Islam. Yet the government has worked assiduously to make Taiwan Muslim-friendly, says Joe Y. Chou, director general of the Tourism Bureau. He notes that the government is assisting restaurants and 4- and 5-star hotels to qualify for halal status (certifying that they meet the standards for what is permissible under Islamic law in terms of dietary requirements) and has created a dedicated section on the official tourism website listing Muslim-friendly accommodations and restaurants, as well as the locations of the eight mosques in Taiwan.
A visit to the website shows that resources for Muslim visitors in English are comprehensive, but that the Indonesian and Malaysian-language information is relatively sparse.
In July, a government-produced promotional film featuring Taiwan’s top tourist attractions and Muslim-friendly travel environment premiered in Brunei and Malaysia. The film shows the highlights of the summer trip to Taiwan of Malaysian actress Mira Filzah, who was joined on the visit by Malaysian social-media influencers Aisha Liyana, Sharifah Rose, and Yasmin Redzuan.
The government’s efforts are bearing fruit. In the Global Muslim Travel Index published in April, Taiwan was ranked as the No. 5 Muslim-friendly country among non-Muslim nations, its best score yet in the survey. In October, the Taiwan Halal Center won a Malaysia Tourism Council Gold Award for its successful promotion of a Muslim-friendly environment and facilities.
Established in 2017, the center helps Taiwanese firms receive halal certification and cooperates with partners who have relevant expertise in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Turkey. Overall the center has helped 954 Taiwanese businesses and over 13,000 products earn halal certification, according to a November report in Taiwan Today, which is published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Hotels, meanwhile, increasingly are catering to the needs of Muslim guests. Shangri-La’s Far Eastern Plaza Taipei Hotel can accommodate Muslim guests thanks to its halal kitchen – food and drink for Muslim guests is required to be prepared separately from that served to other guests – and facilities suitable for prayer. “Malaysia is a good market for us,” says general manager Randy Zupanski.
The Amba hotels, which also have halal kitchens, have “always been Muslim-friendly,” says general manger Dino Chiang, who manages the Amba Songshan hotel in Taipei City (there are also Ambas in Zhongshan and Ximending). Huang notes that halal certification requirements are stringent and it is necessary to reapply yearly to maintain the accreditation.
Overall, he believes that Taiwan is doing well in its efforts to attract Muslim tourists. “Our Muslim guests have commented how impressed they are with the facilities catering to them in Taiwan,” he says.