Taiwan Turns to Southeast Asian Tourists as Chinese Stay Away

(Taiwan Tourism Administration)

(Bloomberg) -- Taiwan wants to lure higher-spending travelers from Southeast Asia as Chinese arrivals dwindle, a shift that could reshape the island’s tourism industry. 

Despite increasingly fraught relations across the strait, visitors from across Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, are traveling to Taiwan in greater numbers than before the pandemic, first-quarter data from Taiwan’s Tourism Administration show. 

The number of Thai visitors has risen 12% from the same period in 2019, according to the travel body, while Singapore’s is up 10% and Malaysia’s has reached pre-Covid levels. 

Hotel revenues and the number of local travel agencies have returned to where they were before the pandemic, a positive sign for the tourism sector despite the number of Chinese visitors remaining stubbornly low.

Tourists from Singapore and Malaysia in particular are seeking out more unique and higher-priced hotels, Lin Hsin-jen, the Tourism Administration’s deputy director-general, said in an interview. That helped propel the hotel industry’s total takings to NT$178 billion ($5.5 billion) last year, surpassing NT$156 billion in 2019. 

“We are focusing on increasing incentives for travelers and developing high-end markets for tourists including Southeast Asians and India, which are our key markets now,” Lin said. 

The trend, if it continues, could reshape a tourism sector long reliant on arrivals from China. This new pattern of spending stands in stark contrast to 10 years ago when China was the largest source of visitors, making up just over 40% of the tourists coming to Taiwan, mainly as part of tour groups. 

Only around 99,000 Chinese came to Taiwan in the first quarter, compared to about 793,000 in the first three months of 2019, the tourism data show. In addition, China has taken coercive measures against Taiwan in recent months, including the seizure of a fishing boat, in an effort to pressure new President Lai Ching-te. Lai rejects China’s claim to sovereignty over the island, asserting instead that Taiwan is a de facto independent nation. 

Working to Rebound

Total visitor numbers to Taiwan were still down 30% in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2019. The pace of the island’s rebound comes as Asian neighbor and travel hotspot Japan saw a historic high in inbound tourists earlier this year as the yen weakened. Taiwan’s Tourism Administration is seeking to remedy this by promoting Taiwan in other parts of the world, including Japan and the US’s West Coast. 

Japanese tourism into Taiwan is at just 69% compared to the first quarter of 2019, as more people stay home amid the currency weakness.  

Taiwan is also looking to encourage the approximately six million travelers who transit through the island’s airports each year to enter Taiwan properly, according to the administration’s Lin, turning transfer passengers into tourists. Taiwan aims to reach 14 million visitors — up from a target of 10 million this year — and as much as NT$1 trillion in annual tourism revenue by 2028. 

While tourism represents a tiny portion of Taiwan’s technology-focused, export-oriented economy, it does employ a significant number of people, especially in poorer rural and southern areas of the island. The growing number of travel agencies demonstrates that industry players remain hopeful tourism is rebounding.

Before 2019, 30% of visitors to the Taiwan Glass Gallery in Changhua county in the central part of the island were from China. Although there are almost no Chinese tourists now, travelers from Southeast Asia have driven attendance numbers up. Visitors have grown by 80% this year compared to 2019, said Lin Yu-chu, an assistant to the vice chairman of the museum.

Different consumption habits are also having an impact. In the past, Chinese tourists typically visited in groups, spending less time at the gallery and only having time to purchase a quick cup of coffee. But as the number of individual travelers from countries like Singapore and Malaysia increases, visitors are staying longer and spending more in the gift shop, according to Lin.

Jiu Zhen Nan, a business selling pastries in airports and malls, has also managed to recover from the loss of Chinese shoppers, saying sales this year are returning to 2019’s level. 

“We have lost Chinese customers and were hugely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past three years,” said Richard Lee, the chain’s general manager. “But now, the business is doing better than before.” 

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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