5 ways Taiwan can increase international tourism without building theme parks and casinos

A tourism expert has suggested Taiwan needs theme parks and casinos to increase visitor numbers. We respectfully disagree.

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Earlier this week, it was reported that an advisor to the Taiwan travel agency association has suggested that Taiwan needs to open more theme parks and casinos to attract more international tourists to the country. 

According to Kao Ming-tu (高洺塗), these developments are needed to tackle Taiwan’s so-called tourism deficit. This is a comparison between the amount of money tourists spend in Taiwan with how much Taiwanese people spend abroad. In 2017, this figure is thought to have been NT$374 billion (US$12.13 billion). 

His solution is to invest in major international theme parks and casinos to try and attract more tourists to Taiwan and close this deficit. 

There has been much criticism of his proposal. Liu Hsi-lin (劉喜臨), the deputy head of National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism (國立高雄餐旅大學) is just one expert voice who has noted that the so-called tourism deficit is conflating two unrelated figures. Liu says that the number of Taiwanese tourists traveling abroad is a sign of national and economic strength and is totally unrelated to how many overseas tourists visit Taiwan. 

He is absolutely right. But he did also add that there was more that Taiwan could do to attract international tourists and, regardless of any perceived tourism deficit, this is also true. 

However, the idea that theme parks and casinos are the best way to attract international tourists is fundamentally flawed. 

Casinos do not attract the sort of visitors who will boost the Taiwanese economy. Instead, they will be wealthy individuals, mostly from China, who will stay in the casino hotel and spend all their money there. The same is true of most visitors to theme parks. If Taiwan were to build these attractions, the only real beneficiaries would be the companies that run them.

The market for theme parks and casinos in south-east Asia is already well catered by others. Japan has a Universal Studios, a Legoland, and a Disneyland. In Hong Kong, there is another Disneyland, and in Singapore another Universal Studios. These major attractions are backed up by the many hundreds of smaller, independent theme parks that already exist in Taiwan and across the region. Meanwhile, Macao and Singapore already have more than enough casinos to cater to regional demand.

Kao’s comparison between Singapore and Taiwan is also a weak one. Singapore is a tiny city-state with nothing to offer tourists beyond manmade attractions and economic incentives. Taiwan has so much more to offer including a rich history, indigenous culture, culinary heritage, and stunning natural scenery. 

If Taiwan wants the number of international tourists to grow, it needs to develop effective policies to take advantage of its many assets. It also needs to target the right markets to be successful. Here are five possible suggestions for how to do this. If you have any other ideas, why not share them with us on our Facebook and Twitter pages:

1. Keep Taiwan natural

Image Credit: Wikimedia

Taiwan has no shortage of National Scenic Areas and for Taiwanese people living in cramped cities with no gardens and very little outdoor space. They are undoubtedly a haven. On the other hand, international tourists are not always so impressed. There is a tendency in Taiwan to try to tame nature rather than let visitors enjoy it as it is.

Too many National Scenic Areas are focused on visitor facilities and natural scenery has often been spoiled with artificial additions often added with Instagram users in mind. These can leave tourists looking for natural beauty a bit disappointed. Taiwan needs to reconsider its approach to the natural environment, stop trying to improve on nature, and create more opportunities for tourists to visit unspoiled areas, particularly in the mountains.

2. Better beaches

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For an island, Taiwan is not blessed with a great many attractive beaches. There is good reason for this. The threat of invasion from China means that parts of the coastline are needed for military purposes. Fishing is still a major industry here, too. Furthermore, Taiwan’s geology means that cliffs are far more common than beaches across most of the country. Nevertheless, there are still a number of beaches that could become big tourist attractions if they were managed properly. Beach tourism can also contribute more to Taiwan’s tourism economy than theme parks and casinos.

Certainly, there needs to be a concerted effort to keep beaches clean. Too many beaches in Taiwan are strewn with rubbish from either the sea or the tourists for which no-one takes responsibility in cleaning up. Some beaches have also been effectively privatized by nearby hotels, while others are plagued by locals trying to rip off visitors through charging a fortune to utilize deckchairs and awnings, or to play water sports. This should be stopped, and the Government should instead focus on ensuring that beaches are unspoiled and equipped with basic facilities like toilets so that visitors can enjoy them. There should also be a focus on developing beach-related tourism such as diving and surfing. 

3. Focus on foodies

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Taiwan should be a mecca for foodies, but while there has been some effort to attract tourists to try Taiwanese food, it hasn’t gone nearly far enough. Foodies are eager to spend money in the local economy and want to try traditional local dishes. Unfortunately, they are all too often being funneled into huge night markets and overcharged for second-rate food. This is a crying shame, as Taiwan has so much to offer. You can taste authentic food from all across China here. There is a fantastic range of traditional Taiwanese food, too. There is even a growing selection of high-end restaurants, with Michelin recognizing more and more eateries here. 

The fantastic new book by Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung, A Culinary History of Taipei offers a terrific introduction to Taiwan’s food culture, but the Government could do more. Local councils could seek to provide maps and guides to direct tourists to the best authentic restaurants and food stalls. These outlets could also be helped to provide menus in English, Japanese, and other useful languages. Local towns and cities could even look to set up specific culinary tours, where local guides lead groups to local eateries and give them a taste of the real Taiwan, away from the bright lights of the touristy night markets. This is happening a little bit, but there is scope to go a lot further. 

4. Improve access to the east coast and the mountains

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Taiwan may be known as Ihla Formosa (beautiful island), but it can sometimes be hard to see where this epithet originated. Taiwan’s western plateau is now very over-developed and industrialized while access to the mountains and East Coast region is not always easy for visitors arriving into Taoyuan or Taiwan’s other international airports. These less-spoiled locations are ones that tourists need to go to enjoy and witness Taiwan’s rugged natural splendor. Therefore, it makes sense for Taiwan to improve roads and rail links to these parts of Taiwan and perhaps even consider extending the HSR network all around the island. 

5. Harness Taiwan’s indigenous heritage and culture

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Taiwan has a fascinating indigenous history and many unique tribal cultures that are still part of everyday life for many people to this day. Taiwan is now widely thought to be the starting point for most Pacific indigenous cultures. Sadly, the only insight many tourists get of this is through performances in their hotel or by visiting an indigenous park, which is often more like a theme park than delving into the real native lifestyles and history. 

Indigenous tourism has the potential to help many struggling indigenous communities to become sustainable and help to preserve these traditional cultures, if it is handled properly. This could be done through developing opportunities for tourists to visit and stay in these communities, live with the people, and experience life there. Traditional festivals and rituals could be opened up more to tourists in a limited and sensitive way. Improving the language skills of indigenous communities would be key to this, but avoiding having enterprising locals permitted to cash in with cheap and tacky tourist experiences will also be important.