I come from a place infested with tourists. We Charlestonians have a very love-hate relationship with the tourists who, on the one hand, fuel our economy and, on the other, don't seem to have learned to look before they cross the street or realize that people actually live in the houses they just strolled into.
I mention this only, because I say what I'm about to say with great hesitation. I think it's important, but at the same time I have images in my head of hoards of tourists filling all the quiet places I'd rather keep to myself and to all of us "brave" enough to live here.
...Hey, just being honest....
I want Taroko, Alishan, Kenting, and Penghu to myself. Part of it, I'll admit, is taking delight in being one of comparatively few foreigners to have been somewhere. Makes me some sort of modern day adventurer. The other part of it is how peaceful a lot of these places are without the masses you'd find, say, at the Grand Canyon.
That said, if I were a member of the Taiwanese establishment responsible for tourism on the island, I would more or less ditch all of this mess about getting Chinese tourists come here. As I wrote a while back referencing an editorial from the Taipei Times:
I imagined Chinese tourists coming to the island and seeing how much of their history was almost lost, had it not been brought to Taiwan. [I know what you're thinking Michael, but I didn't mean it like that]I bring this up again in light of a recent Zogby poll (pdf) that highlights the unsurprising truism that Americans (coming from Taiwan's, arguably, most constant ally) don't really know anything about Taiwan (only 6 percent very familiar with Taiwan, and 61 percent unfamiliar), and, if they do, it's probably because they thought you said Thailand.
What I didn't consider is that more Chinese tourists meant an excuse for Taiwanese travel agencies to maintain shoddy service standards:More importantly, it never crossed my mind that if the Taiwanese government was more intent on attracting tourists from more developed countries, then perhaps the initial permitted stay would be bumped up to three months, meaning those of us who come to the island to stay for a little while wouldn't have to go through all of the rigamarole to lie and get a two month tourist visa:
The Chen administration is spending enormous amounts of time and political capital on opening up tourism to a much larger number of Chinese tourists. Notwithstanding the bluster coming from some pan-green-camp politicians, there is little to be concerned about in terms of political or security considerations given how many "China shills" Taiwan produces without Beijing's prodding.
The bigger and more important question is why the tourism industry is so eager to secure the Chinese tourist dollar -- apparently at the expense of the rest of the world's travelers.
The answer is not very pleasant: Taiwan's tourism chiefs and entrepreneurs are lazy and incompetent and have filled the country with substandard facilities and poorly trained, monolingual staff.
Chinese tourists, accustomed to this laziness and incompetence -- and worse -- at home, will pose no problem for travel agencies except in demanding refunds from the most conspicuously shoddy operators.
The fact is that Taiwan has so much to offer to tourists from the rest of the world -- but the message is not getting through. Insufficient cash for overseas promotional work can be blamed, but only to a point.
There are other things that the government can and should do to destroy the absurd assumption that a larger Chinese market is going to make Taiwan more tourist-friendly.
One is to make visas free and extend them to three months (as with Hong Kong) for nationals of countries that pose no direct security threat to Taiwan.
Martial law finished 20 years ago; there are no good reasons to make tourists jump through hoops that simply exist to make Taiwan's overseas officers seem more important than they really are.
It's no coincidence that (1) most foreigners who come to Taiwan love it and (2) most foreigners who come to Taiwan are more likely to pay attention to the daily happenings concerning the island, thus increasing their awareness of what's actually happening on the island.
This, I would think, would be Taiwan's greatest asset. Outside of the city, it's stunningly beautiful, the people are nice (unless you have an unfortunate run-in with the mafia). You don't have to deal with thought police, juntas, or xenophobia (or less so), unlike most other countries in Asia.
Taiwan is, after all, one of the freest countries in Asia.
Do not infer from the above that Taiwan is perfect -- far from it. The truth, I believe, is that you're much more likely to get robbed in Paris, New York, or Rome, than you in Taipei. You're more likely to have your camera confiscated in China, and you're more likely to get the crap kicked out of you in London.
Taiwan desperately needs to increase awareness around the world, and one of the easiest things (it seems to me) that it could do is to mount a huge tourism initiative that will focus on bringing more Western tourists to the island.
Taiwan has a lot to offer:
- It's small. In a country a little smaller than the Netherlands, it's easily navigable, with beautiful beaches, lush mountains, and flat plains. There's Taroko Gorge (my videos), Alishan, and tons of other little towns in between.
- It's cheap(er than a lot of places). Almost anywhere in Taiwan, you can eat a good meal for about US$3, if you're willing to eat Asian fair, if not, you'll be spending between six and ten bucks US.
- It's easy to travel. There are trains (including the new High-Speed trains), buses, and highways.
- Most people under, say, forty speak English. They may not always speak it well, but more often than not they won't be too timid to try. Whereas in Korea or Japan -- especially the former -- they might only speak English begrudgingly.