Surfboards, Pets, and Piety: Niche Markets in Taiwan’s Hotel Industry

Travelers pose outside of WaGaLiGong Surf Hostel and Bar in Dulan Township, Taitung. Owner Chen Yong-yi says that despite the name, the hostel attracts surfers and non-surfers alike. Photo: WaGaLiGong

Travelers in Taiwan these days can expect to find a wide range of unique, modern places to stay.

Type the name of any popular resort area or major city into a booking website and a huge list of options for lodging will appear. But if you have slightly unusual requirements – you need wheelchair access, say, or you refuse to leave your pet at home – identifying a suitable hotel or homestay close to your destination may not be so easy. 

“Generally speaking, hotels are reluctant to overtly target niche markets because they don’t want to turn away other segments,” says Maggie Chen, an assistant professor at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland.

Almost all hotels, she says, welcome females traveling by themselves, families with young children, and LGBTQ+ guests, just as they welcome business travelers and couples in general.

“Industry professionals are more likely to think in terms of leisure, business, or MICE [meetings, incentives, conventions, and exhibitions] – or luxury, upscale, midscale, economy, or independent,” Chen explains.

When Chen discusses niche marketing with people in the hotel industry, she outlines the approaches taken by Silks Place Yilan and i hotel Taoyuan.

“These two hotels showcase innovation in Taiwan’s tourism industry. Most places can accommodate families with young kids, but Silks Place Yilan is a leader with its Fantasy Castle and driving lanes,” Chen says, referring to children’s attractions inside the hotel’s atrium. “When I show photos of Silks Place Yilan to veteran hoteliers, they’re impressed. It proves that a hotel can offer a miniature Disney or Legoland experience.”

Possibly the first hotel in Asia to latch on to the rapid growth of eSports, i hotel Taoyuan features rooms equipped with pairs of high-speed gaming computers, as well as a mini-arena in the lobby where two six-strong teams of e-gamers can battle it out.

Some providers of accommodations are not shy about aligning themselves with a particular demographic.

Asked if identifying themselves as a surfing business in both English and Chinese might lose them potential customers, Chen Yong-yi of WaGaLiGong Surf Hostel & Bar (哇軋力共都蘭衝浪/立槳/酒吧) replies: “I don’t think so. Around 60% of the people who stay here want surf lessons, but our vibe also attracts non-surfers, because we provide more than just surfing. We get people who just want to chill and make new friends.”

While WaGaLiGong’s amenities may be sparse, luxury is not on the minds of most guests, who choose the hostel for its easy access to good surfing and its laid-back atmosphere. Photo: WaGaLiGong

The hostel, in Taitung County’s Dulan Township, closed down for about three weeks in March 2020. “Villagers afraid of COVID-19 were getting scared when they saw foreign tourists, so we decided to renovate and repaint our place,” Chen recalls. Before the pandemic, she adds, up to 90% of WaGaLiGong’s guests were non-Taiwanese.

Yet, she says, that demographic flipped last summer, with the vast majority of guests being Taiwanese, while the remainder were foreigners who were already based in Taiwan. Business then was consistently good until the second half of May this year, when the domestic outbreak forced another sudden shuttering.

Birds, dogs, and fish

The owners of Yilan Birdwatching B&B (宜蘭賞鳥屋民宿) say they chose a name for their minsu (the Mandarin equivalent of “guesthouse” or “homestay”) that would attract birding enthusiasts. The five-room property is next to Wushierjia Wetlands (五十二甲溼地), a part of Wujie Township that draws flocks of avian migrants each winter.

The owners of Yilan Birdwatching B&B, located in the county’s Wushierjia Wetlands, say that less than 5% of their guests are avid
bird enthusiasts or photographers. Photo: Yilan Birdwatching B&B

Relatively few of the homestay’s guests – less than 5% – are obviously bird lovers or photographers, the owners explained via a Facebook message. However, they pointed out, not everyone who stays there explains why they selected the B&B. 

Few travelers would think twice before checking in to a place they know is popular with birdwatchers. They might, however, hesitate to book a room in a facility that advertises itself as a dog-friendly hotel. That is probably one of the reasons for the lack of attractive options for local pet owners, even though many express a willingness to pay a premium if their animals can stay with them.

“My dog doesn’t like to stay with my brother, so if we go anywhere for a few days, we take her with us,” says Michael Huang, a factory manager in Tainan. “It’s a good thing we like camping, because not many places will accept a dog.” 

Nearly 400 dog-owners surveyed by two local scholars for a 2015 paper published in the Journal of Tourism and Health Science said they would pay an average 10.7% more for accommodations if their canine could sleep in a cage just outside their room, and 21.7% more if dogs and owners could stay inside the same room. The paper also found that the main target markets for pet-friendly businesses (PFBs) are unmarried people, especially younger females, and those in the habit of traveling with their dog or cat.

Travel with pets could be a niche market to watch. According to Council of Agriculture data, the number of pet dogs and cats in Taiwan almost doubled between 2006 and 2017. By the second half of last year, official statistics suggested that the number of pets had exceeded the number of children aged 14 or younger.

The 85-room Guanko Hotel (冠閣大飯店) in Chiayi City, which positions itself as a parent/child/pet-friendly place to stay, has much in common with other PFBs listed on BringFido.com, a website that helps pet owners find hotels and restaurants.

The hotel’s website lists rules designed to “maintain the quality of accommodation for other guests and protect the rights and interests of other pets.” For instance, those traveling with dogs must stay in pet-friendly rooms on the second floor, and animals must stay off the beds.

Furthermore, those who turn up with animals without having given the hotel prior notice may be turned away. Guests who violate any of the rules (for example, by not using a dog stroller, or allowing their dog to urinate in a public area) may be asked to leave. If their pets damage or foul hotel property, the NT$3,000 deposit paid at the time of booking may be forfeited.

The special meals Guanko Hotel provides for canines get mixed reviews, and some guests have complained about inadequate soundproofing.

Noise, however, is not a problem with the creatures that keep Songzhumei Holiday Homestay (松竹梅休閒渡假民宿) in business. The five-room B&B, located beside Provincial Highway 3 in Chiayi County’s Dapu Township, appears to prosper despite online reviews lamenting a lack of certain modern conveniences and difficulties communicating with the boss in languages other than Taiwanese.

But the owner has got at least one thing right. There is a spacious kitchen that guests like to use, because the homestay is near the only legal angling platform on any reservoir in Taiwan. Repeat customers say they enjoy not only cooking the fish they have pulled from Zengwen Reservoir, but also sharing their fishing experiences with likeminded people.

Religious hospitality

With official encouragement, some accommodation providers have gone out of their way to appeal to travelers from Muslim countries. As of May 2021, the website taiwanhalal.com listed 90 “Muslim-friendly” hotels across Taiwan.

amba Taipei Songshan is one of 90 hotels certified by the Chinese Muslim Association. Among its Muslim-friendly amenities are washlets for observing Islamic toilet etiquette, prayer mats, and Korans. Photo: amba Taipei Songshan Hotel

Among hotels certified by the Taipei-based Chinese Muslim Association are amba Taipei Songshan and amba Taipei Ximending. Both offer guestrooms equipped with washlets so that guests can observe Islamic toilet etiquette. The hotels also provide prayer mats and Korans. Both establishments have halal-certified restaurants.

Achieving and renewing Muslim-friendly and halal certifications do not come cheap. Dino Chiang, general manager of amba Hotels & Resorts, declines to say how much the company has spent so far on hardware and employee training, but says the total is considerable.

Taipei Boutique Design Hotel. Photo: amba Taipei Songshan

In mid-2019, the Tourism Bureau announced that hotels that install Muslim-friendly toilet facilities can claim a subsidy of up to NT$400,000. Those providing halal cuisine can apply for a maximum of NT$300,000 to offset the cost of setting up a separate kitchen and purchasing special utensils. However, since amba began investing in making its properties suitable for Muslim travelers in 2014, it did not benefit from these subsidies.

Before the pandemic, the Muslim market had grown to around 5% of the two hotels’ business, Chiang says. Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau does not record visitors’ religious beliefs, yet residence data for the foreign citizens who clocked up 9.3 million arrivals for business or leisure in 2019 suggests far fewer than 5% were Muslim.

“We recognize the importance of the Muslim travel market, and we expect the number of Muslim guests we welcome to continue to grow when international customers return,” says Chiang. “We’ve benefited from and will continue to support the Tourism Bureau and Taipei City government in their efforts to capture for Taiwan a piece of this growing market.”

One of the oldest forms of tourism in Taiwan is temple-related travel. To accommodate pilgrims, many larger shrines have built dormitories known as xiangke dalou (香客大樓).

These places have a reputation for being cheap but basic. In some establishments, notices urge guests not to gamble, quarrel, or consume meat or alcohol on the premises – but travelers are not likely to find the atmosphere so austere that it ruins their excursion. 

A February 2021 article on the local independent news website TaiSounds seeks to dispel three common myths about pilgrims’ dormitories. One is that the facilities are usually shabby, while another cautions that people staying in such places are likely to be disturbed by early-morning sutra chanting. The third misconception is that for couples traveling together, the environment tends to discourage romantic inclinations.

The TaiSounds report highlights three pilgrims’ lodges that it calls “hidden high-end hotels,” offering privacy and hygiene. However, the article winks, “if you want to do something immoral, it might not be convenient to be next to the gods.”

Of the three, none of which is listed on booking.com, perhaps the most useful for mainstream sightseers is Xietian Temple Pilgrims’ Inn (協天廟忠義香客大樓) in Jiaoxi, Yilan County. According to the report, it not only has space and amenities comparable to business hotels, but also a hot-springs bathtub attached to each two-, four- or twelve-person guestroom. Many reviews give the inn a thumbs up, saying it offers excellent value for money.

By law, local hoteliers must make their businesses suitable for travelers who need to use wheelchairs. Hotels with 50 to 99 rooms can be fined if they do not have at least one barrier-free room. In larger establishments, one room in a hundred must be wheelchair-suitable.

Government subsidies cover some refitting costs, and the proportion of wheelchair users – currently around 1% of Taiwan’s population – is sure to grow as the number of elderly people increases. Even so, several hoteliers have complained that wheelchair-accessible rooms are seldom used, and the requirement hurts their bottom line. For their part, those who organize tours for the physically challenged say that having one or two suitable rooms in a hotel is seldom enough, as wheelchair users prefer to travel in groups.

One of the few hotels in Taiwan that can accommodate a large group of wheelchair users is Comin’ Place (康茵行旅), less than two kilometers from the Tai-chung High-Speed Railway Station. This 74-room hotel was designed with the frail and the elderly in mind. Every hallway and elevator is equipped with handrails. Bathrooms have grab bars, bathing chairs, and emergency call buttons.

Online reviews are mostly positive, but a few guests complain that the bathrooms bring back memories of hospital visits, and that wet and dry areas are not properly separated. This last drawback is an inevitable consequence of barrier-free design – and should be something that able-bodied travelers are willing to put up with, so their less robust compatriots can also enjoy a getaway.

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