C.T. Su, director-general of the Tourism Bureau (a division of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications) was interviewed by TOPICS editor-in-chief Don Shapiro
TOPICS: What are Taiwan's special attractions as a tourist destination?
Su: We have fantastic tourism natural resources -- high mountains with gorges, beautiful streams, and forests. And there's a great variation in vegetation -- tropical, temperate, and even alpine -- and a wide number of animal and plant species. It's said that Taiwan has the second highest density in the world for the number of different species. All of that makes the island a very good place for eco-tourism.
As for the cultural aspects, we of course have the National Palace Museum, with 650,000 items in its collection, and both Chinese and very colorful aboriginal cultures. And lots of festivals -- people can come here to experience our traditional folk festivals or newly developed festivals for tourism purposes [such as the annual Food Festival].
This is not a big island -- and because of that size, it's very convenient to travel around. Most tourists spend four days/three nights or five days/four nights -- though of course you can stay longer to see more. There's a very convenient transportation network, which makes it easy to get around to see the natural beauty and the cultural attractions in a very short period of time. By car you can travel in three hours from the coastline up to mountains with a 3,000-meter elevation.
TOPICS: What are some of the main obstacles in promoting tourism here?
Su: Price is number one. Taiwan is seen as being an expensive place, and it is true that in the urban areas the hotel prices tend to be higher than in Hong Kong or Singapore. Of course, they are cheaper than in Japan. But the labor costs in Taiwan are high and the land cost is high, which gets reflected in the prices, so the price competitiveness is not so good as compared with neighboring countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, China, or the Southeast Asian countries. That is our main problem in trying to attract foreign visitors, and one of the most challenging issues for us in promoting international tourism.
Another problem is that the service capability is insufficient. On the peak days in the peak seasons, because a very high proportion of the capacity is occupied by our domestic demand, sometimes we face a shortage of capacity available for international tourism. This is also a problem.
There is also an obstacle in that Taiwan is not an English-speaking society, so foreigners may face certain inconveniences in traveling on the island. Therefore, we are trying to improve the "visitor-friendliness" of our tourism environment.
TOPICS: The government has set a very ambitious goal of doubling the number of foreign tourists by 2008. How are you going about trying to reach that objective?
Su: Of course it is essential that we do more promotion, and therefore the government from now on will be giving us more budget for overseas promotion. And secondly, we have to design very price-attractive and product-attractive package tours for foreign visitors. There's been criticism that the travel products being offered are always the same old ones. Actually we can design more new products, but the travel agencies have been reluctant to promote them because they require more effort and more investment. So the Tourism Bureau is trying to work with them to help them promote those new packages.
We usually work with the outbound travel agencies in the overseas markets. If they come up with a new package, we may share the advertising cost with them to reduce their marketing burden. That is one of the strategies we are using now.
More advertising is needed to make people aware that Taiwan is not just an industrial country, but also a tourism destination -- to change Taiwan's image in the world.
TOPICS: Do you have a particular theme that you're planning to emphasize?
Su: Our logo for promoting Taiwan shows an outline of the island and the slogan "TAIWAN -- Touch Your Heart." We use this slogan because many visitors comment that the most unforgettable part of their trip to Taiwan was the hospitality and friendliness of the people. But more than that, we also want to emphasize that our natural beauty can touch your heart, our foods can touch your heart, and of course the art collections in the museum can also touch your heart. But we have to do more promotion and advertising to let people know that there is really something that can touch the tourists' hearts when they travel to Taiwan.
We hope the tourists will come to Taiwan to enjoy our very dramatic landscape with fantastic mountains, the gorges, our seashores, and our countryside, and so on -- and of course we hope people will realize that this is a paradise for gourmets. People can come to Taiwan to enjoy our Chinese and Taiwanese delicacies, as well as foreign foods. People who like good food will certainly find it here in abundance.
TOPICS: Could you provide some examples of the new travel products you mentioned? Su: These are being designed for particular markets. For example, for German people we may design products to enjoy nature -- our oceans, our mountains, our forests. And for Japanese we have different products: golf tours, very traditional tours for the elderly who like to go to Sun Moon Lake, Taroko Gorge, the Palace Museum, and so on. But because Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese for 50 years from 1898 to 1948, that left a lot of Japanese influence here. So we thought why not package this as a tour for Japanese who had some relation with Taiwan before -- those who lived here or their descendants? Some of them were born in Taiwan, but left when they were very young and always had the desire to revisit their place of birth or see the place where their parents worked.
And many Japanese young ladies like to come to Taiwan to experience a different cultural atmosphere. They like the night markets, they like to sample Taiwanese food, they even like to go to the fortunetellers to find out their fortune, and they like to go to Chiufen and Chinkuashih [towns in the hills of Taipei County] to see those very rustic places. Surprisingly they aren't so interested in going to Taroko Gorge to see the grand natural beauty there. They prefer to see those small places, and the normal life activities of the local people.
TOPICS: Is there anything aimed at the American market?
Su: Yes, for the American market we plan to promote our religious life. Some Americans would like to learn more about Buddhism and Taoism, our major religions. And religious development in Taiwan is quite special -- no other place in the world can compare. Some of the Buddhist masters in Taiwan are among the most influential in the world. [Under their leadership Buddhism in Taiwan has developed into an important force in this society, operating schools, universities, hospitals, relief organizations, and other charitable institutions].
And eco-tourism is another area we can develop -- not just for the Americans but for the Japanese. Within eco-tourism, bird-watching is one of the areas we want to focus on. Many birders come to Taiwan, and they've found that this is a paradise for bird-watching because you can see many species without having to travel a long distance or over difficult terrain. Earlier this year some Canadian birders were here and they said that during the four-day/three-night tour the highest record was spotting some 120 different species -- and more importantly they added new species to their record. So bird-watching is definitely one of the attractions we should promote.
TOPICS: Before you mentioned that one of the difficulties you face is that Taiwan isn't an English-speaking country. What are you doing to try to improve the English-language information and signage for foreign tourists?
Su: Actually the government has given an order to all relevant agencies to have signage in English versions ready by the end of this year -- all the road signs and the signage to the tourism spots, etc. It's being done. And also we want to add information centers with English- and Japanese-speaking personnel, and for the brochures and other printed materials we are trying our best to provide English versions.
Some of these centers are already there, but don't yet have the English-speaking information. And we plan to add more centers, especially at all the important transportation facilities, like airports, railway stations, and bus stations. By the end of this year, there will probably be more than ten new centers, and at the same time we want to upgrade the level of service at the existing service centers.
TOPICS: So many different government departments have responsibilities that impact on tourism -- including the highway bureau, forestry bureau, environmental protection agencies, and so on. How is coordination handled among all those departments?
Su: We have a committee in the Executive Yuan under the premier. The chairman is the premier, and the ministers from the various ministries are committee members. This is the coordination body for implementing those plans and projects relating to increasing our tourism numbers. Not all the issues will be discussed by this committee, but those that need coordination among higher-level officers will be discussed there.
It's been very effective -- especially for visa issues. Before we had that committee, we'd talk to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and request visa-free treatment for more countries, but always had difficulties. But now since we're aiming to double our tourism numbers and they know they should do something to help, when the issue is brought up in that committee, we get faster action.
TOPICS: What advice do you have for foreign residents of Taiwan who may be here for a few years for business reasons? How can they get more out of their stay?
Su: I would say that Taiwan is a country with a lot of natural and cultural treasures to be explored. I hope they can take their vacation in Taiwan and go to the countryside or the mountains to explore the beauty of the island. They should also try to join our local festivals to learn our folklore and understand the deeper meaning of the festivals. That'll make their life in Taiwan much more interesting.