Mainland Tourists are More than Just Dollar Signs
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
August 19, 2011
Summary: The number of Mainland tourists visiting Taiwan has fallen off recently as a result of the recession. Group tours were once filled to overflowing. But second quarter numbers have fallen off sharply, The numbers for the newly implemented Free and Independent Travel Policy are also much lower than expected. What is the problem? So far the government and the tourism industry haven't a clue. That may be the most serious problem of all.
Full Text below:
The number of Mainland tourists visiting Taiwan has fallen off recently as a result of the recession. Group tours were once filled to overflowing. But second quarter numbers have fallen off sharply, The numbers for the newly implemented Free and Independent Travel Policy are also much lower than expected. What is the problem? So far the government and the tourism industry haven't a clue. That may be the most serious problem of all.
The number of Mainland tourists visiting Taiwan as part of group tours fell off this spring. The tourism industry inititally attributed the decline to the overly restrictive nature of group tours, Cutthroat competition within the travel industry also led to lowball bids and poor service, Therefore observers predicted that large numbers of Mainland tourists would switch to individual travel under the Free and Independent Travel Policy Act. The Free and Independent Travel Policy Act went into effect in June. But by the end of the month, only 500 tourists had arrived on Taiwan, only slightly more than the quota for a single day. The assumption that tourists would switch from group tours to individual tourism the Free and Independent Travel Policy was apparently mistaken.
Tourism Bureau officials believe the main reasons for the decline are the plasticizing agent scandal and Alishan train accidents. Overcrowding at the National Palace Museum and other attractions have also dampened visitor interest. Indeed, transportation safety, service quality, as well as Taiwan's overall credibilty and image, are all factors that have affected visitor interest. Taiwan opened itself up to Mainland tourism only three years ago. Has fatigue already set in after such a brief period? Is Mainland tourism to Taiwan merely a flash in the pan? If that is the case, then the quality of our tourism services and tourism facilities are substandard and not sustainable in the long term. Are these factors sufficient to explain the decline in Mainland tourism to Taiwan? If not, what other factors are there?
Mainland tourists have never come to Taiwan purely for the sake of tourism. For Mainland tourists, Taiwan's primarly selling point is the 50 year long separation between the two sides. Relatives and friends can now be reunified. They can experience the economic and social contrast between democracy and authoritarianism. They can satisfly their curiosity about each other, learn about each other, learn from each other, compete against each other, amidst a "quasi-divided" state of affairs. Two years ago Taiwan opened itself up to Mainland tourism. Mainland tourists replaced Japanese tourists as Taiwan's most important source of tourism revenue. Why? Because many Mainland tourists want to see with their own eyes the symbolic differences between the two sides that have resulted from a half-century of separation. They want to experience for themselves another model of development for the Chinese people. Therefore, if we insist on seeing Mainland tourists to Taiwan merely as "business opportunities," we will inevitably make the mistake of focusing on short term profits.
Cross-Strait exchanges involve the more complex problem of politics. This has two aspects. On Taiwan, the opposition DPP opposes opening the island to Mainland tourism. Not everyone agrees that is a good thing. Not everyone is happy about it. As a result, Mainland tourists are strictly limited in their movements. They are not permitted to leave their tour groups. Free movement is prohibited. Travel agents are made liable for any violations. This discriminates against Mainland tourists. It also encourages the tourism industry to find ways to evade system oversight. We want the business opportunities afforded by Mainland tourists. But we refuse to offer Mainland tourists reasonable treatment. Alas, the government is utterly oblivious about its own internal contradictions. It is even less interested in seeking ways to remedy the situation.
Mainland tourists visiting Taiwan also involve a hidden variable in cross-Strait political relations. To a considerable extent, cross-Strait policy requires Beijing's cooperation, and its belief in the Ma administration's good faith. This however, forces the administration to exercise greater discretionary authority in response to the gray area. For example, rumor has it that the first 200 visitors traveling under the Free and Independent Travel Policy were mobilized by the Beijing authorities, If true, this cannot help but distort the nature of what ensues. Also, election season is approaching. The government has asked Beijing to reduce the number of political and business visits, in order to avoid harming the ruling party's election prospects, Such a move is highly artificial. Many Mainland visitors want to come to Taiwan to witness the elections, "up close and personal," But they are forbidden to do so out of political considerations. Outsiders cannot see what is going on behind the scenes. This makes finding a remedy even more difficult.
Mainland visitors to Taiwan can help the two sides understand each other, This is indisputable. But government and business choose to see the matter as nothing more than business. The government boasts about waves of tourists spreading money around. Businesses think only of Mainland tourists' immense purchasing power. Both value only group size, purchasing power, and making a fast buck. As for how to provide the commensurate services, how to showcase Taiwan's sophistication, how to to leave a good impression, those are matters they cannot be bothered with.
The plasticizer scandal severely damaged Taiwan's image. The Alishan train accidents and Suhua Highway accidents have also dampened tourist enthusiasm, But a far more serious is Mainland tourists who have concluded that "Taiwanese are no longer honest." When they return to the Mainland and speak of their disillusionment, more and more people will have second thoughts. Tourism industry insiders on Taiwan have expressed regrets over the self-destructive myopia of their industry peers, including hotels and stores. Can a market that kills the goose that lays the golden egg have a future?
The number of Mainland visitors has decline, But if they enjoy greater freedom of movement, if they can travel in greater safety, if they can have more fun, that may not be a bad thing. Taiwanese visitors to the Mainland have also experienced incidents in which they were treated as "dai bao" (clueless tourists). Who wants such unpleasant experiences repeated with Mainland tourists to Taiwan? More importantly, Mainland tourists' fascination with Taiwan must not be destroyed by businessmen interested only in making a fast buck. Perhaps Taipei and Beijing have not had sufficient time to implement their plans. But they must, if tourism exchanges are to enhance mutual understanding.
2011.08.19 02:26 am