Promoting Tourism in Taiwan
Being Friendly is Not Enough
Taiwan has all the resources and attractions to make it a top tourism destination. Yet beyond the famous friendliness of its people, it has to look beyond the interests of the few and honor its heritage while serving the public and national interest.
Being Friendly is Not EnoughBy Monica Kuo
It is often said that people comprise Taiwan’s most beautiful “landscape.” Admittedly, Taiwanese tend to be very friendly toward foreign visitors and will go out of their way to be accommodating and help them resolve difficulties.
On a deeper level, however, this raises a more pointed question. Do Taiwanese apply the same standards when dealing with locals or people from different social strata?
If Taiwanese people only display helpfulness, honesty and integrity when showing foreign visitors around, or reach into their pockets and remit large sums for overseas relief efforts when disaster strikes others, that simply reflects temporary emotional impulsiveness. What this is missing is consistent caring and oversight, without which the cultural landscape is unsustainable. That in turn prevents the full implementation of government policy and the full expression of social compassion.
Emotion over Reason
The popular tourist area of Alishan, for example, holds a mystical status at a spiritual level among Chinese visitors as a place they yearn to visit. In reality, it is also an area with considerable world cultural heritage potential after having transitioned from exploitation by the forestry industry to reforestation, boasting a wealth of high mountain forest tourism and unique cultural resources.
Apart from Alishan’s natural beauty, people are also critical to its well-being. The preservation of communities at stations along the railway line must be approached with the public interest at the forefront.
As a mountain forest zone, Alishan possesses a definite appeal and distinctiveness. If this ideal lingers on fanciful visions and practical problems on the ground are not solved, however, several questions have to be confronted. Among them: Can the practical transformation and optimization of the environment be mentioned in the same breath as the “friendliness” we so often emphasize? And can it help add value to the “cultural landscape” the Taiwanese take such pride in?
Alishan boasts rich forestry resources and indigenous cultural characteristics, but its ancient trees were nearly totally depleted in the two decades after the Japanese first exploited those precious resources and successfully established a forest railway and forest access road. Loggers and their descendants completely surrounded every fragile and sensitive forest node.
The Nationalist government took over management of the area after it relocated to Taiwan in 1949, but it wasn’t until 1958 that the emphasis in forestry policy shifted to resource management.
There have been efforts since 2007 to promote the total transformation of Alishan, including the construction of new Alishan and Zhaoping train stations and facilities for observing sunrises from Zhushan, as well as other government-led efforts, such as holding international design competitions, to reshape each station along the Alishan railway.
Yet despite those efforts, most locals have only cared about their own interests.
This ultimately resulted in the breakdown of talks over a proposed commercial street renewal project. Despite concerted efforts to adjust vendor space and conditions and establish a visitor center and service center, most local residents and merchants were concerned only with making money for themselves, and were largely apathetic on matters of public interest.
Such situations are certainly distressing. Viewed from the perspective of a world-class tourism destination, they could even be seen as insulting and embarrassing. Further, on the level of environmental aesthetics, there is barely any visible evidence of the impact and efficacy of public policy.
This is precisely where Taiwan’s current national land use aesthetics and environmental ethics lag behind the times, leaving public agencies frustrated and their hands tied.
Image: Monica Kuo
Shop Takes Lead in Introducing Artistic Climate
The situation is not completely hopeless. One shop stands out from all the colorful sameness among the merchants along the commercial plaza outside the Alishan train station. From the arrangement of space, to product packaging and landscaping, one business – Mountain Ali Tea No. 35 – makes people stand up and take notice.
The shop is run by a second-generation proprietor who returned to the area to manage an Alishan tea business and explore new opportunities. From product packaging to interior design, the proprietor establishes Zen-like communication with consumers based on mutual trust and support.
The owner is also quite willing to invest in the business, as demonstrated by a collaborative effort to curate a special Taiwan-themed environmental art exhibition with noted artist Lin Pang-Soong. For that exhibition, they spruced up an abandoned shack in a cloud belt at nearly 2,500 meters in altitude and turned it into a high-mountain botanical garden and mini museum, harmoniously marrying tea culture with the local environment.
I strongly admire the teahouse proprietor’s willingness to set aside old practices and collaborate with an artist. That not only requires the investment of capital, but the injection of art and creativity to forge a beautiful mountain lifestyle experience.
It may not cater to popular tastes, but it still must also keep visitor volume under control and maintain quality as it seeks to find kindred visitors. From a business standpoint, the process of getting off the ground has been tremendously difficult and particularly lonely.
Many businesses around Taiwan have made a fortune on tourism, yet are reluctant to contribute to improving quality, let alone give back to their public environment. Yet as the number of Chinese tourists in Taiwan continues to decline, we still deeply believe that “virtue never stands alone” and that perhaps some wise consumers can positively influence local values.
This embodies “placemaking” – the idea of inspiring people to collectively reimagine public spaces by capitalizing on a community’s assets and potential. Beyond financial benefits, the driving force behind the pursuit of this “placemaking” trend should be a rediscovery of local pride and confidence in the revitalization on one’s home community.
Image: Monica Kuo
Old Fishing Port, New Possibilities
Though Taiwan is an island nation, its people are generally distanced from the sea. The reasons for this separation are complicated, including a mentality inherited from China of an “inland country,” the interdiction on sea travel under the Ming and Qing dynasties, and the Nationalist government’s martial law era restrictions. As a result, the sea remains distant even for people in some coastal communities where one can practically reach out and touch it.
Also for these reasons, few Taiwanese were able to get close to the sea or take part in various on-water activities prior to the lifting of martial law in 1987 unless they were involved in the fishing industry.
This even colored the orientation of Taiwan’s urban development, as nearly all land development was undertaken “with its back to the sea,” resulting in limitations to access to the sea, public access rights, unobstructed views, and even locals’ relationship with the sea.
Consequently, even official tourism promoters stress only visiting Penghu, Kinmen, Matsu, Green Island, and Orchid Island in the summer. Flight schedules to outlying islands are filled with gaps and ship sailings are also limited, even if the charms of these islands are undiminished during mild winter months. It’s not hard to see that misguided images from the past continue to affect both public and private sector coastal, maritime, and outlying island operating strategies.
Furthermore, “transplanted values” have misled developers and local residents to mistakenly believe that coastal or marine tourism should be as it is in Hawaii or the Mediterranean, featuring blue skies, white sand, and palm trees.
In fact, Taiwan’s unique natural environment and social characteristics make beachside palm trees nearly an impossibility and gold coasts and sugar-white sandy beaches just a dream. Still, Taiwan boasts a wide diversity of cultural and historical roots and richly layered culture.
The once internationally-renowned port city of Keelung, for example, was instrumental in establishing Taiwan’s strong position in international trade over the past century. Several factors, however, led to the port’s gradual marginalization and ocean fishing steadily declined, and now Keelung is looking to gain new life as a home port for international cruise liners.
Once Taiwan’s largest ocean fishing port, Zhengbin Fishing Harbor retains its charm even after decades of decline.
Zhengbin Fishing Harbor, now seemingly just a tiny fishing village, was once Taiwan’s largest ocean fishing port, and nearby Heping Island still bears the influence of the Western maritime powers that passed through here. The area is packed with shipyards that face away from the sea while sending oil and iron filings toward the sea. But similar to Alishan, at a time when the traditional fishing village food street remains the center of development, a ray of hope has appeared in the form of a native son determined to contribute to his hometown.
Inspired by the historical Spanish city of San Salvador, this intrepid art agent has found a niche among the grease and rusted scrap of an abandoned shipyard town’s street and injected a passion for the sea and his hometown. His Casa Picasso restaurant’s artsy air offers consumers an “aesthetic experience,” and although visitors are not able to set sail for the sea or cruise the harbor, they can nonetheless see the sunsets, the moonlight, and the reflections on the water, and take in the sounds of the sea.
Perhaps the returns earned on this investment imbued with idealism are limited and unlikely to sway government policies, but it has nonetheless stimulated “dialogue with the sea” as a part of life. Visitors are more willing to linger for sunsets, neighboring indigenous children frolic playfully by the water, and tourists from home and abroad can marvel at the beauty and atmosphere of the seaside scene, cheerfully staying to watch the fishing boats coming and going and gaze at the starry skies over the water.
Casa Picasso (Image: Monica Kuo)
‘Placemaking’ a Function of ‘Heart’
The central government is keen to promote local industrial and economic revitalization as well as “placemaking” and has invested considerable human and material resources in the process.
Admittedly, placemaking initiatives cannot be expected to succeed overnight, and if resources are not used wisely, or if momentum is not built from the ground up, any gains will be hard to sustain. The challenge is not a matter of discourse or theoretical models, but rather in eliciting feelings of identification and responsibility among locals toward their surroundings.
After more than two decades of efforts to promote the beautification of Taiwan’s cities and towns and overall community development, if all we have is the theoretical discourse of scholars and experts then it amounts to nothing more than an outline that will never exert enough force to move the dial of local values. Outside forces can come in and provide a boost, but without a deeply-rooted sense of local identification and responsibility there can be no “big picture” vision.
It is our hope that stories from the mountains and the seaside will lead to more reflection and drive a new “placemaking” era of innovation and entrepreneurship throughout Taiwan.
Translated from the Chinese article by David Toman
About the Author
Monica Kuo, chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Chinese Culture University, held the position of technical specialist in the National Parks Division of the Ministry of the Interior’s Construction and Planning Agency for eight years and served as a national parks planning commissioner for many years.
Opinion@CommonWealth website is a sub-channel of CommonWealth Magazine. Founded in January 2013 with its main focus on social, humanity and policy issues and opinions, Opinion@CommonWealth is dedicated to building a democratic, diverse platform where multi opinions can be presented.
Currently, there are approximately 100 columnists and writers co-contributing on Opinion@CommonWealth to contemplating and exploring Taiwan's future with the Taiwanese society.