Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Chinese are coming

Taiwan mixed about prospect of more tourists from China

By Jonathan Adams
International Herald Tribune, Tuesday, April 29, 2008

PULI, Taiwan: At his hotel here, a short drive from scenic Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, Chang Tse-yen is eagerly anticipating a mainland Chinese tourist boom.

The Cheng Pao Hotel is already a popular stop for Chinese tour groups, and stands to profit if, as hoped, Taipei and Beijing conclude an agreement this summer to admit many more mainland tourists to Taiwan.

Currently, Chang said, occupancy averages 60 to 70 percent. But if the agreement goes through, he expects close to 100 percent, and he may hire as many as 18 more employees to deal with the increased guest load.

"I think every hotel around this area above a certain quality will be full," Chang said. "This is very good. If we get more guests, we get more money."

For Chang and other businesspeople here, the prospect of a mainland tourist invasion has raised hopes of a windfall. Some argue it could even influence political attitudes on the mainland in Taiwan's favor. China's Communist government continues to insist that self-ruled Taiwan is a renegade province, separated by civil war, and has not ruled out force to block formal independence.

But skeptics say only a few privileged businesses would benefit, and that the island's scenic spots could be spoiled by greedy developers and a tourist stampede.

Long off-limits to mainland Chinese, Taiwan is now popular among mainland tourists for its scenery, preservation of Chinese tradition and for historical sites associated with the former Kuomintang strongman Chiang Kai-shek.

Chinese tourists were first officially admitted to Taiwan in 2002. But visits are capped at 1,000 a day, and tourists must travel to the island via third locations because of restrictions on direct cross-strait flights.

But if Ma Ying-jeou, the president-elect, has his way, that will change.

Ma, who takes office on May 20, has promised to reach an agreement on more Chinese tourists and weekend cross-strait charter flights by early July, expanding to weekday charters by the end of the year and regularly scheduled flights by summer 2009. All this is part of his election pledge to stimulate the island's laggard economy with closer cross-strait economic ties.

Under the plan, the cap would be tripled to 3,000 Chinese tourists a day, or more than 1 million per year. Last year, 320,169 mainlanders visited Taiwan, only 81,900 of whom officially came as tourists, according to Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. The rest were listed as business travelers or "others."

In a few years, Ma hopes, the cap could rise to 10,000 tourist visits per day. Tourist revenues will have benefits throughout the economy, he says, especially helping lower- and middle-income Taiwanese in the service sector.

Financial analysts are also touting the advantages. In February, the investment bank CLSA estimated that if 1 million Chinese tourists visit Taiwan each year they will spend $1.3 billion, and help boost GDP by up to 1.4 percent of 2007 levels.

There is also optimism that Taiwan's democratic ways will rub off on visiting Chinese. Lin Chong-Pin, president of the private Foundation on Cross-Strait and International Studies in Taipei, says that increased tourism could accelerate political liberalization on the mainland.

"The most impressive thing they will observe is freedom," Lin said of the mainlanders. "This will sow the seeds of democracy. They'll ask, 'If people in Taiwan can vote, why can't we?' This type of question will be asked more and more in China."

Not everyone has such a rosy view. Some point out that the economic benefits will not be spread around, because Chinese tend to travel to Taiwan in regimented tour groups that only stop at contracted businesses.

"They're coming to Taiwan through travel agencies that arrange their schedules, including food, hotel and where they visit," said Canleon Kadafatu, a representative of the Thao aborigines, most of whom live on Sun Moon Lake's eastern shore. "The guide isn't allowed to take tourists to places without a contract. They say business is booming, but actually it's not for everyone."

Sun Moon Lake, one of Chiang Kai-shek's favorite getaways, is a key attraction for mainland tourists, along with the Alishan mountain resort area farther south, and sites in the capital such as Taipei 101 - until recently the tallest building in the world.

"For mainland tourists, Sun Moon Lake is a dream place," said Chang, the manager of the Cheng Pao Hotel. "You have to visit once in your life."

But many vendors at the lake seem blase about the coming influx. One reason is that Chinese tour groups tend to stay at cheaper hotels in Puli and other nearby cities, rather than by the lake itself, which is more expensive.

Others worry about the environmental impact.

"As tourists increase, so will pollution," said Tseng Kuo-chi, director of the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area Administration. "We'll have to take steps to protect the lake's scenery and ecology."

That will not be easy. With some 140 tour boats already crowding the 827-hectare, or 3-square-mile, lake, it is not clear how many more it can accommodate. New hotel and cable car construction has already marred the natural scenery with a jumbled skyline. The lake has 2,190 rooms now, and will add 400 more in the next two years, Tseng said.

"If so many hotels are built by the lake, it will spoil the environment," said Tim Hsu, a volunteer interpreter and guide with the scenic area administration.

Then there is the culture clash. Taiwanese businesses will have to adapt further to mainlanders' preferences. For example, Tseng said, unlike Taiwanese and Japanese tourists, most mainland tour groups do not care much about gourmet food.

"For them, quantity is more important than quality," he said. "They really know how to eat."

Fortunately, Taiwan already has five years of experience dealing with mainland tourists. In Puli, Chang said his hotel puts mainland Chinese on separate floors from other guests, to avoid "problems." At mealtimes, Japanese and mainland Chinese are seated in separate dining areas.

"They don't like each other," said Chang, citing historical and cultural differences.

He said guests from sophisticated cities like Beijing and Shanghai are usually hassle-free; it is the more provincial mainlanders who need extra care.

"Some use their own chopsticks to pick up the food at the Western-style buffet," said Chang, adding that hotel staff patiently explain the function of serving utensils when partaking of common dishes.

Staff at the lakeside Lalu Hotel, the most expensive in Taiwan, are not expecting a dramatic change in their own business, because most mainland tour groups have tight accommodation budgets. But the hotel is looking forward to fewer cancellations by wealthy Chinese running into visa problems.

Meanwhile, Lalu's assistant general manager, Dennis Morinaga, suggested that Taiwan try to balance the economic opportunities with environmental protection. He compared Sun Moon Lake to his native Hawaii, saying resort areas like Waikiki Beach offered a cautionary tale of overdevelopment.

"You want to stay back, and keep the calm and serenity, but can you survive?" Morinaga asked. "Or do you want to bill yourself as a major tourist location with the world's biggest market - 1.3 billion people?

"I think Taiwan does need" development, he said, "but the thing is to control it. How much is the right amount? No one knows. But everyone wants a share of the market."

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