Plan Now to Revive Tourism to Taiwan

Taiwan’s tourism sector needs to start planning now for how it will deal with the post-COVID-19 environment.

My older brother Seth, despite repeated invitations, has yet to make it to Taiwan and has never expressed more than occasional fraternal interest in the country and culture that’s been the cornerstone of his younger brother’s life. But he’s a sports freak, particularly about baseball.

Seth rang me up just before midnight one evening in mid-April, breathless. “Dude, why didn’t you tell me about Taiwanese baseball? I’m staying up until three a.m. to watch a live game from Taiwan. It’s the only live baseball on the planet!”

Within days, Seth had become expert enough on Taiwan’s baseball scene to be able to name most of the teams and offer predictions as to which players might make it in the U.S. major leagues. 

“This is a brilliant strategy on Tsai Ing-wen’s part,” he told me, dropping the name of the president (he’d seen a picture of Tsai watching the game with her cat during the broadcast). “Every baseball fan in the world is stuck inside and dying to watch a game, and every sports channel in America is dying for content. Right now, Taiwan is every sports fan’s new best friend.”

My brother’s new-found interest in Taiwan confirmed what I’d already suspected – that the nation’s highly competent handling of the pandemic (especially when compared with the incompetent handling elsewhere) would bring unexpected dividends. But would an increase in inbound travel be one of these dividends?

At the very least, more people now know where Taiwan is. The days when mentioning Taiwan in casual conversation would elicit “Oh, I love Pad Thai” finally seem to be over.  

“Taiwan has definitely been on the map of America’s consciousness these past few months,” Lee-sean Huang, a Taiwanese-born Facebook contact of mine in New York City, told me. “Taiwan’s handling of COVID-19 and the accompanying good press has increased Taiwan’s soft power well beyond the realm of food journalism and bubble milk tea diplomacy. For me, one of the biggest things is that President Tsai is now being talked about alongside other global leaders who are leading the fight against COVID-19.”

Huang, whom I’ve come to regard as an expert on all things Taiwanese, says that other issues, such as marriage equality, have also helped enhance Americans’ perception of Taiwan. I asked whether he thinks this change would eventually translate into an increase in tourism.

“Taiwan is an odd middle child,” he replied – “not super cheap like Thailand, not quite as ‘cool’ as Japan. People generally stop off in Taiwan en route to other places. But from what I can tell, Taiwan is more squarely on the map than it’s ever been before, which isn’t a bad thing.”

Mixed news at best

While Taiwan may be on the world’s radar, international tourism isn’t going to be on anyone’s agenda as long as the pandemic continues. But it’s not too early for people in Taiwan’s travel sector to be contemplating how to best take advantage of new opportunities when they come.

I sought the views of an old friend, Trust Lin, currently the head of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s Singapore office, who is always a font of ideas. “No doubt the stories in the international media about Taiwan’s success in controlling the pandemic have built up Taiwan’s image as a safe and healthy destination, and this is going to be a good thing once the crisis is over,” Lin told me. “A lot of tour operators in Singapore see Taiwan as their first choice for tourism once international travel resumes.”

Lin said the bureau is already incorporating Taiwan’s enhanced image as a safe and healthy travel destination in planning future promotional campaigns. “In a post-COVID-19 era, health and safety are going to be key concerns, and Taiwan’s ‘safe and healthy’ brand image is going to be an important factor in attracting travelers. Once the crisis has passed, we’ll be well-prepared.”

While international travel to Taiwan is still a non-starter, the island’s overall travel industry has been buoyed considerably over the summer thanks to a surge in domestic tourism. Despite the loss of international tourists, hotels in most of Taiwan’s traditional beauty spots in August were nearly fully booked into October.

Over 10,000 tourists descended on the offshore island of Xiaoliuqiu on a weekend in August. Photo: CNA

Of course, that business is mainly due to the flood of stir-crazy Taiwanese taking advantage of Taiwan’s nearly COVID-free status on a pandemic-wracked planet in order to explore all corners of the country. A good portion of the surge can be attributed to a generous subsidy program designed by the government to promote local travel, including NT$1,000-per-person hotel subsidies and free admission to amusement parks for kids and teenagers.

For domestic travelers looking to explore Taiwan, the second half of 2020 is turning into something of a golden age, perhaps another unforeseen dividend of the country’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. But for now, there’s little light at the end of the tunnel for other segments of Taiwan’s tourism industry.

Michael Wu, CEO of MyTaiwanTour, told me that with the borders still closed, business remains mighty slow for a travel company specializing in showing Taiwan to international travelers.

“Honestly, I don’t see much changing until spring of 2021 at least,” he said. “I’m glad we’re getting some help from the government. In addition to some Taipei City projects, we’ve gotten three months of subsidies as a tour operator, basically paying 40% of the office staff’s salary from April to June.”

But with government subsidies ending, Wu said that many employees in the travel sector are leaving for other industries, particularly jobs in IT and e-commerce (which has flourished during the crisis as consumers have avoided going out to shop). 

“One of our guides has become a YouTube content provider, while others are moving into other fields,” Wu said. “COVID-19 has entirely changed the way human beings live and do business. I don’t see inbound travel coming back until a vaccine is developed.” 

While the boom in domestic travel – said to be up 200% from last year – is a godsend for tourist businesses in scenic locations like Penghu and Sun Moon Lake, it has not brought much benefits to hotels in the big cities. “We’re down to approximately 10% occupancy,” said the general manager of one of the best hotels in the Xinyi district, a place that in a normal year would be filled to capacity with high-end international travelers and overseas conventioneers. “Taipei isn’t a popular destination for locals,” he said. 

Wu applauded the efforts that many Taipei hotels are making to attract local business, while noting that it’s an uphill battle. “They’re offering great deals,” he said. “You can get a 30-hour stay at the Sherwood served up with a 20-ounce steak and lobster for 5K. It still isn’t enough. I don’t expect to see any bright lights in the city hotels until inbound travel returns.”

But Wu agrees with the proposition that once international travel does resume, the ongoing good press about Taiwan will benefit the industry, particularly among visitors from America.

Mask diplomacy

Part of the goodwill that Taiwan was able to generate in the U.S. was due to Taiwan’s efforts to distribute much-needed medical supplies during the pandemic.

Douglas Y.T. Hsu, the newly appointed Director-General of North American Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), previously headed Taiwan’s office in Boston. In that role, he was one of several Taiwanese trade and diplomatic officers in the U.S. who helped coordinate a massive project that was later dubbed “mask diplomacy.” The initiative combined top-down governmental planning with grassroots efforts on the part of Taiwanese citizens living in America.

As part of the “mask diplomacy,” a total of 90,000 surgical masks from Taiwan were donated to Los Angeles County. Photo: CNA

“Taiwan was able to donate more than half a million masks to state and city governments in New England alone, making Taiwan the first foreign government to do so,” Hsu said. “We made sure that these donations didn’t just go to big cities, but also to smaller towns.”

At the same time, local Taiwanese communities in New England were raising money to purchase masks and other personal protective equipment for nursing homes and other vulnerable groups around the region. In Boston, one group of Taiwanese housewives spent much of the spring making fabric masks for donation to local hospitals and law enforcement agencies around the region.

Hsu sees the potential for translating the boost to Taiwan’s image in the U.S. into an increase in tourist numbers in the future. “The media reports about Taiwan during the crisis might increase people’s interest in choosing Taiwan as a travel destination,” he said. “While it’s hard to predict how soon Taiwan will reopen for foreign tourists, we’ll need to get ourselves ready to welcome them, hopefully in the not too distant future.”

Hsu is a believer in the importance of inbound travel as a powerful tool in Taiwan’s “soft diplomacy” toolbox. “Promoting foreign travel to Taiwan for commerce, tourism, education, and other purposes has always been one of MOFA’s top priorities,” he says. “As foreign service officers, we use every opportunity to encourage foreign counterparts to visit Taiwan, to get to know our people, culture and society. We also invite representatives from local governments around the U.S. to come over and introduce their state to the Taiwanese people. These two-way exchanges inspire creativity, allowing us to build stronger relations with other countries.” 

Besides the good works themselves, also encouraging has been Taiwan’s increased adroitness at letting the world know about them through social media. The channels include the official @MOFA-Taiwan Twitter account, which boasts just under 200,000 followers; that of the Ministry of Culture (@CulturalTaiwan, with over 25,000); and smaller accounts representing regional offices around the states, such as @TECO_Boston, @TECOinSeattle, and @TECO_Denver.

Good news from and about Taiwan is released by hashtagged-tweet (#Taiwan, #TaiwanCanHelp, and #TaiwanIsHelping, to name just three) and disseminated throughout the digital world by Taiwan’s ever-expanding network of friends and allies.

Digital Minister Audrey Tang has become one of the most recognized Taiwanese faces in international media for her tireless work helping manage the crisis through digital innovation. Expressing optimism in an email that Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus could yield a possible future dividend in increasing inbound tourism, Tang referred to recent news that countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand are considering prioritizing Taiwan in the negotiations of “travel bubbles” or similar reciprocal arrangements.

Tang also confirmed that the government is intent on moving forward with enhanced soft-power projects designed to bring more people to Taiwan through talent exchanges, resource-sharing projects, scholarship programs, and other initiatives. She also made clear that Taiwan’s current generation of government officials has become increasingly savvy in the ways of social media, regarding it as a valuable tool for amplifying Taiwan’s voice in the international arena.

Goodbye inferiority complex

This plague will end. People will travel again, and when they do it will be with a visceral need borne from having spent far too many moons cooped up indoors. Taiwan can expect to see a massive increase in tourism at that point, due to the competence and compassion it showed as a member of the international community during a major global crisis, plus being confident and media-savvy enough to share that story with the world.

Chun-huei Chi, a professor Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences in my home state, was recently quoted by Newsweek Japan/ as observing how Taiwan’s COVID-19 performance has affected the attitude of people in Taiwan.

“People have more confidence in themselves,” Chi said. “Before, people and government had an inferiority complex. They are now able to see other nations as equal.”

For years, Taiwan has shown itself willing to “eat bitterness” in the name of maintaining relationships and endure indignities for a chance to be seen as almost a nation among equals.

The decision on opening borders and resuming the welcoming of international tourists with open arms (metaphorically speaking, given what still may be the need for social distancing) clearly must be made cautiously based on what is best for the health and welfare of the people of Taiwan.   

But once that decision is made, Taiwan must be ready to move quickly and nimbly to take full advantage of the rising tide that will refloat the good ship Taiwan Tourism.