Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Chinese are coming II

Awaiting Tourism Deal, Taiwan Is Primed for More Mainland Chinese Visitors

New York Times, May 5, 2008

PULI, Taiwan — At his hotel here, a short drive from scenic Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, Chang Tse-yen is already making plans for a possible boom in tourism from mainland China.

If officials in Taipei and Beijing agree this summer to increase the number of tourists allowed to visit the island from the mainland, as many here hope, Mr. Chang expects to hire up to 18 more employees.

His hotel, the Cheng Pao, is already a popular stop for Chinese tour groups, but he hopes a new influx will increase occupancy rates above the current 60 percent to 70 percent.

“This is very good,” Mr. Chang said. “If we get more guests, we get more money.”

If a tourism deal does go through, it will be one of the first practical results of promises by the president-elect, Ma Ying-jeou, who will take office on May 20, to forge closer links with the mainland. Such ties are part of his plan to reinvigorate Taiwan’s economy, which in recent years has lagged behind others in the region.

Many Taiwanese blame the island’s departing president, Chen Shui-bian, for the poor performance and say he has cramped growth by focusing on independence for Taiwan at the expense of livelihood issues.

Since 2000 Mr. Chen has sought to cement the island’s de facto autonomy and create a distinct identity for Taiwan. That has angered Beijing, which considers Taiwan a Chinese territory awaiting reunification.

Still, Mr. Chen’s administration has already negotiated most of the details of an agreement on tourism, making it seem increasingly likely to happen.

Chinese tourists were first officially admitted to Taiwan in 2002. The island has been popular with mainland tourists attracted by its scenery and historical sites associated with Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan from the mainland in 1949 when his forces lost to the Communists.

But visits are capped at 1,000 a day, and tourists must usually arrive via third locations because of tight restrictions on direct cross-strait flights.

Mr. Ma, the president-elect, hopes to triple that cap to 3,000 Chinese tourists a day, or more than one million per year. Last year 320,169 mainlanders visited Taiwan, but only 81,900 came officially as tourists, according to Mainland Affairs Council of Taiwan. The rest were listed as business travelers or “others.”

Mr. Ma also wants China to agree to start a limited number of direct charter flights by early July and regularly scheduled flights by summer 2009.

Mr. Chen had also hoped to establish such flights, but talks foundered because of China’s objections to his pro-independence moves.

The investment firm CLSA recently estimated that if one million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan each year, they would spend around $1.3 billion and help increase the gross domestic product by up to 1.4 percent over the level in 2007.

Some in Taiwan also hope that Chinese visitors will be impressed by Taiwan’s democracy and push for change at home.

“The most impressive thing they will observe is freedom,” said Lin Chong-pin, president of the Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies, a private group based in Taipei. “This will sow the seeds of democracy. They’ll ask, ‘If people in Taiwan can vote, why can’t we?’ ”

Despite all the excitement over a possible tourist windfall, some worry that the economic benefits will not be spread around. Chinese tend to travel to Taiwan in tour groups that stop only at a handful of prearranged businesses that have contracts with travel agents.

“They’re coming to Taiwan through travel agencies that arrange their schedules, including food, hotel and where they visit,” said Rungquan Lhkatafatu, a representative of the Thao aborigines, most of whom live on the eastern shore of Sun Moon Lake. “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.”

Others are concerned about the environmental impact, especially at Sun Moon Lake, once one of Chiang’s favorite getaways and now one of several attractions popular among mainland Chinese.

“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. About 140 tour boats already crowd the three-square-mile lake, and new hotel and cable car construction mars the natural scenery with a jumbled skyline. Hotels along the lake have 2,190 rooms now, and 400 rooms will be added in the next two years, Mr. Tseng said.

Even those looking forward to a possible influx of visitors say there will be challenges, mostly relating to cultural differences. For example, Mr. 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.”

At mealtimes, Japanese and mainland Chinese are seated in separate dining areas.

“They don’t like each other,” said Mr. Chang, the hotelier, citing historical and cultural differences. Many mainland Chinese remain bitter about Japan’s brutal World War II-era occupation of China. For their part, some Japanese look down on mainlanders as rude and unrefined.

Mr. Chang said guests from mainland China’s inner provinces needed extra care.

“Some use their own chopsticks to pick up the food at the Western-style buffet,” said Mr. Chang, adding that hotel staff members explain that at such buffets, serving utensils should be used to take food from common dishes.

Employees 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 as tight restrictions on cross-strait travel are relaxed.

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 with his native Hawaii, saying that 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?” Mr. Morinaga asked. “Or do you want to bill yourself as a major tourist location with the world’s biggest market, 1.3 billion people?”

He said he thought Taiwan did need development. “But the thing is to control it,” he said. “How much is the right amount? No one knows. But everyone wants a share of the market.”

Original site

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