Honeymoon period for China-Taiwan tourism seems to be over


The honeymoon period for mainland Chinese tourists in Taiwan seems to have ended after three years since the government eased travel regulations for mainland tour groups.

Statistics from the Tourism Bureau show that the number of mainland tourists to Taiwan is expected to drop for the third consecutive month in July. The nation saw a 22 percent drop in headcount in May as compared to the same period last year. The drop grew to 28 percent in June.

While the launch of self-guided trips to Taiwan in July might contribute to some of the decrease, as some prospective travelers decided to skip tour groups and wait for self-guided tours, there are reasons to believe people from mainland China have indeed lost some of their enthusiasm about Taiwan.

It is ironic that the mainland tourists’ fondness of Taiwan is in part a result of nationalist education. At least judged from media reports, it is common among Chinese tourists to site “childhood memory” as one of their motivations to travel Taiwan. In addition to the obvious tourist magnets such as the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101, Chinese tourists traveled in legion to Sun Moon Lake and Alishan often because these places are ingrained in the Chinese collective conscious through textbooks and songs popular in China for decades.

It is only inevitable that people fantasize and beautify places they had long heard about but were banned from traveling to for years. It is also inevitable that some of them will find the reality not as wonderful as the fancy.

That, however, is only part of the problem. Taiwan has long been one of the favorite tourist destinations in Asia, capable of satisfying even the most sophisticated travelers. Formosa has more to offer to mainland tourists than the realization of fancies and nostalgia. What really troubles Taiwan’s tourism is the attitude local travel agencies and tourist-related businesses hold towards their mainland customers.

As competition for mainland tourists grew, travel agencies engaged in a price war. Unfortunately the price cuts came at the expense of service quality. While the government is trying to promote Taiwan as a capital of good food and quality tourism, many customers of cut price packages feed on simple food like fried rice-flour noodles and stay in small hotels some mainland tourists described as similar to those they had been in 20 years ago.

The underlining idea of such competition is that local businesses regard the mainland as less a potential market in which they need to build reputation with quality services than a market for quick money. What’s worse, such practices signal an almost insulting presumption that mainland tourists are either gullible or unable to distinguish good service from bad.

One example are the “zero-charge packages.” The seemingly bargain deal, in which travel agencies charge nothing or next to nothing from tourists, is often one big products sales campaign for the agencies. In return for the extra-low agency fees, tourists are required to make shopping stops prearranged by the agencies. The stores will give commissions for tourist purchases to the travel agencies. Such zero-charge trips are often a disappointment for tourists who don’t have the chance to savor the best Taiwan has to offer, but instead are bored by the endless stops at stores that are less tourist attractions and more “tourist agency attractions.”

Similar practices have also been reported in Hong Kong after the city opened its doors to mainland tourists. In one notorious case, a mainland tourist died of heart complications in Hong Kong after having a heated argument with his tour guide. The guide had required him (and other tourists in the trip) to stay in a shop for over an hour. The case and the follow-up reports on similar practices tarnished the city’s image as a quality tourist destination, at least for some mainland Chinese who felt they were not only mistreated but also looked down on.

There is no doubt that the mainland is a potential source of tourists for any country in the world and there is no doubt that Taiwan has the potential to be a world-class tourist destination. However, attitude is key to world-class service. Local businesses should provide quality service to their customers and the practice of zero-charge trips should be regulated to protect Taiwan’s image as the beautiful island.