The Power and Purpose of the Tourist: Recognizing a Strategic Sector

The Tourism Bureau raises Taiwan's profile in the region through the "Time for Taiwan" travel fairs like the one seen here in the Philippines.

“The industry of fun” – travel and tourism – is given its own annual issue of TOPICS. I look forward to the articles and images each July but am disappointed to see the sector largely neglected by Taiwan.

Taiwan is no “tourism country,” we hear. The sector is not among the “Six Core Strategic Industries,” set out by President Tsai following her May 2020 inauguration, which include information technology and national defense. Subsectors like MICE, all-inclusive vacations, or foreign individual travelers (FIT) certainly can’t be as essential as cybersecurity and medtech. Or can they?

With sufficient support, tourism could become a national economic engine, especially in today’s Taiwan, where I argue inbound tourism should equate with national security. Consider a few dimensions.

First, in 2019, almost 12 million individuals visited Taiwan. While here, each one spent US$1,200 on average. Increase arrivals by 50% or 100% – something I saw happen over just a few years in Japan – and that translates into substantial earnings.

Changes in international travel – fewer, longer trips and a focus on sustainability and “authentic experiences” over binge consumption – favor Taiwan. Given the positive attention Taiwan is basking in, Taiwan-bound tourism is poised to grow faster than the recovering global market.

Next, from guides and bed-and-breakfast operators to cruise line captains, this sector provides employment diversity. A balanced, resilient economy is a strategic priority; 23 million people cannot live equitably on tech exports alone. 

The travel sector is unique in generating positive personal interactions – quintessential “soft power.” The tourists who show up at the Taoyuan or Kaohsiung airport often leave as advocates for an island famed for its hospitality. And in the absence of diplomatic presence and international organizations, a stream of foreigners should be reassuring for a country located in “a tough neighborhood.”

Fortunately, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau appears to appreciate that Taiwan tourism needs more than reopened borders and a workforce infusion. A re-think of marketing based on Taiwan’s attributes and attractions is needed. So, how to strengthen this “critical supply chain” in each of its links – information, travelers, and people-to-people bonds?

One, redouble investment until lodging catches up with Taiwan’s admirable transport infrastructure. This underpins the “mass” market. Then move to the “class” market to cater to visitors who spend more than Taiwan’s predominant backpacker.

A way to fast-track the high-end offering might be to welcome in Indian or other proven Asian resort developers. Domestically, Taiwan can better tap the online travel tech and booking-transport-shopping models that AmCham Travel & Tourism Committee members, including the tourism platform companies, offer. And as our recent White Paper noted, ensure enough operators of that enhanced infrastructure through flexible immigration, training, and labor policies for this (and other) sectors.

Two, with the supply chain fundamentals in place, the destination marketers can look to Taiwan’s attractions and niche offerings: cycling, experiential opportunities in indigenous cultural settings, sustainability-themed learning, traditional offerings aimed at previously China-bound traffic that can no longer access a zero-COVID country, leisure add-on days to the business stay, LGBTQ+ tourism, and more.  

While infrastructure and marketing will surely improve in the mid-term, it is in the short-term where we see “own goal” barriers left in place by the government. With one exception, Taiwan remains the country in Asia most walled off to tourists, with neither timeline nor metrics for reopening.

No less an authority than epidemiologist and former Vice President of Taiwan Chen Chien-jen has stated that once past infection peak, it is feasible to open. Fewer than 1% of those being infected are impacted beyond levels typical for seasonal flu, and Taiwan’s healthcare system remains solid. Perhaps most tellingly, infection rates are higher inside than outside Taiwan, meaning that tourists are not a “vector” of infection: you are safer in line at the coffee shop behind a Singaporean tourist than your neighbor.

Unfortunately, given the lag between a reopening “green light” and arrivals, sizeable tourist inflow is still a couple of quarters away. 

AmCham Taiwan has encouraged Taiwan to plan for a prompt, safe opening, from its vaccine “advocacy” last year, to sharing the findings of our 2022 Business Climate Survey and White Paper. Thus, the third of our three tenets – speed, clarity, and simplicity – is key. “Simplicity” connotes a return to 2019’s visa-free entry. It also stands for non-discrimination among travelers. Should a cap on entries be necessary, tourists should be lining up at the baggage claim alongside businesspeople and students. 

Taiwan enjoys a golden opportunity thanks to positive attention and curiosity about its uncanny success in coping with this pandemic. It would be a sad irony if unnecessary caution after the main pandemic struggle and a lack of appreciation of the strategic value of “people at leisure” caused a major missed opportunity.