• A general view of the lobby at the Gaia Hotel in the Beitou district near Taipei, which caters to tourists from Muslim-dominant countries. /AFP
  • People walk into a mosque in Taipei. /AFP

Looking south for tourist dollars

World February 26, 2018 01:00

By Agence France-Presse

7,489 Viewed

With visitors from China falling off, Taiwan turns its attention to Southeast Asia and Australia

FROM HALAL fried chicken to hot springs hotels with prayer facilities, Taiwan is adapting its traditional tourist draws to woo Muslim visitors as Chinese arrivals dwindle. 

Mainland tourist numbers have slid dramatically as China relations deteriorate, with speculation authorities there are turning off the taps to pressure Taiwan’s Beijing-sceptic government. 

Taiwan is now looking to boost relations with 16 South and Southeast Asian countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand – what it calls its “southbound policy” – and is seeking more visitors from the region. 

That has meant a growing number of tourists from Muslim-majority countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Taiwan welcomed 30 percent more visitors from Southeast Asia in 2017.

 People walk into a mosque in Taipei. /AFP

Taoism is the prevalent religion in Taiwan, with Muslims making up less than two per cent of the population, but tourists say they are surprised how welcome they feel 

“I really like the natural scenery in Taiwan and the people are very nice,” says Ashma Bunlapho, 40, a Muslim tourist from Thailand on a five-day trip with her husband.

She found halal restaurants using Google Maps, including a shop selling beef noodle – a Taiwanese favourite – and felt free to pray where she chose, taking her mat with her to famous nature spots including Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan. Malaysian tourist Dean Idris adds that halal eats are easily accessible as he visits Taipei with his two young children, taking in the zoo, a night market, and a historic district close to the city’s best-known temple.

“I learned that Taiwan, Taipei especially, is actually very Muslim-friendly,” he says, standing outside a mosque in the capital, where he had gone to pray.

A chef prepares a halal meal at the Gaia Hotel./AFP

Thailand, South Korea and Japan are among Asian nations that have been tapping into the Muslim travel market, which has been fuelled by growth in cheap flights and a booming middle class in countries such as Indonesia. 

Fried Chicken Master, a small shop not far from Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall – one of its most famous landmarks – has adapted to the trend, selling a halal version of the snack, which is also a Taiwanese favourite. 

“We hope to be able to serve tourists, exchange students, or Muslims living in Taiwan. As Taiwanese we are proud of our food,” says Louis Tsai, a spokesman for Super Qin Group, which owns the shop.

A trip to one of Taiwan’s hot springs resorts tops most tourists’ to-do lists and Gaia Hotel in mountainous Beitou, best-known for its natural pools, provides guest rooms with prayer direction signs and prayer schedules. 

Minibars there are alcohol-free and cakes do not include pork-based gelatin. To obtain its halal certification, the hotel kitchen created a separate cooking and dining area.

“Since the number of Chinese tourists has decreased, and Southeast Asia is quite a sizeable market with many Muslims, this is an area we have to actively pursue,” Jack Chang, Gaia’s operations manager, explains. 

Muslims during Friday prayers at a mosque in Taipei. /AFP

On a recent visit to Istanbul, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je met with Turkish lawmakers who want to fund the building of a third mosque in Taipei, according to the city government. 

Taiwan is also trialling visa waivers for Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines. It eased visa rules last June for six southbound countries, including Indonesia, India, and Cambodia.

But some doubt whether the growth in Muslim tourism is enough to offset the lost income from the mainland.

Chinese visitor numbers dropped by a fifth last year, and have fallen since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in May 2016. 

Beijing still sees self-ruling democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and relations have become increasingly tense as Tsai refuses to acknowledge it is part of “one China”. 

Salahuding Ma, secretary general of the Chinese Muslim Association, the largest halal certification body in Taiwan, says it is hard for the new wave of tourists to compete with their Chinese counterparts. 

“The Chinese have wealth and spend lavishly,” he says. 

“If you are talking about Southeast Asia, which countries can even compare?”

Ma says Taiwan would have greater success if it overcame the language barrier by encouraging students from “target countries” to work in the island’s tourism sector.

For Thai visitor Bunlapho, her lack of Chinese and limited English proved an obstacle when trying to find transportation to Taroko National Park on Taiwan’s east coast, famous for its deep gorges and sweeping cliff faces. 

“I couldn’t figure out how to get there,” she laments. 

“Next time. I’ll come back.”