We checked in at a Kaohsiung hotel perched on the verdant hills of this port city-cum-industrial complex, just an hour and 20 minutes from Naia, or 35 minutes to either Laoag or Lal-lo in Cagayan, if we only had direct flights.
This was my third time to sleep overnight in this hotel, which is owned by a huge Taiwanese company with a diversified investment portfolio. We were on an investment mission along with businessmen from the Philippines, and the hotel was nearest to our confreres.
What I noted was the huge drop in visitor arrivals since I first came in September or October last year. The hotel is a huge complex, with an entertainment complex, water sports facilities, a duty-free and outlet shopping mall, a “Kaohsiung Eye,” as one of my companions noted, similar as the huge ferris wheel atop it was to the famed London Eye.
The reason for the continuing drop in visitor arrivals was the “drought” from China. Taiwan tourism had been quite reliant on millions of tourists coming from the mainland, aided by direct flights from various Chinese cities and a very reliable transportation system that connects to every spot in this island of a mere 11 million square miles (that’s about the whole of Luzon minus Quezon and the Bicol region).
Kaohsiung is one of the largest ports in the world, which is why the Taiwanese heavy industry complex is located here and its environs. While the rest of Southeast Asia except Singapore was into small and inefficient ports, Taiwan embarked on constructing a massive port in its southern tip, rivaling those of the US and Japan. The foresight has paid off, as many investors, domestic and foreign, or partnerships thereof have established their operations here.
The city is not really for tourists as much as it is for business travellers, but because of its history and proximity to the mainland, it has begun to attract a sizable number of tourists as well, until recently. Just as most other cities of Taiwan, including its resort areas, have been feeling the pinch, better yet, the cut, because cross-strait relations have become rather anxious.
When we checked in, which was at lunchtime, I noticed that the huge dining hall where buffet lunch was served daily was almost empty. Not that they have scrimped on the food offerings, these were as scrumptious as always before. Signs of the times, I thought.
But as we came back later in the night, after a round of business meetings, I noticed the long lines at the reception counters. It was going to be a long week-end, a four-day holiday from Oct. 7 to 10, to celebrate the Double Ten National Day, commemorating the victory of the Chinese revolt against the Qing Dynasty.
Taking a late breakfast at nine the following morning, I had to await my turn to be seated, as the breakfast buffet hall was packed to the rafters, mostly by families. But the service was brisk, and I noticed how families quickly left after their breakfast, mindful that many were queuing up for their turn.
Speaking to the manager later, he told me that the hotel was at 85% capacity, and the visitors were almost completely “domestic” tourists. “We get by with strong domestic demand,” of course, at promotional rates, he intimated.
When the foreign visitor arrivals decline, they keep their noses above water by enticing domestic tourism through attractive packages. No wonder my companions and I got a slew of discount coupons in their entertainment complex cum shopping malls along with our room key.
That’s until Tuesday, when the Taiwanese families drive back or fly back to work. But it gives the huge investment in the privately owned tourism infrastructure relief from the “drought” in mainland travel traffic.
The story of the Kaohsiung hotel is replicated in many other areas of Taiwan, whether in the awesome Taroko Gorge area, or in Hualien, Yilan, Taitung, the Sun-Moon Lake in Nantou and elsewhere in this beautiful and well-kept island.
But because local purchasing power is adequate, and there is enough disposable incomes to fuel domestic tourism, the travel industry is able to plod on.
Government is responding as well, trying to attract more tourists from the non-traditional markets like Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, through visa-free enticements.
Inbound Philippine tourism to Taiwan, even without the visa-free announcement (which is yet to be operationalized) has grown by almost 73% year-on-year.
But because there was a huge building spree of hotels and restaurants during the happy days of mainland Chinese arrivals, the tourism industry here is now in some kind of crisis. The lifeline is provided by domestic tourism.
There is a lesson here for our own travel industry, for both the public and private sectors in Philippine tourism to well consider.
We have a woeful lack of hotel and resort facilities to service the growing influx of tourists from mainland China and Korea, among others. But the drawback is that our existing hotels and resorts charge an arm and a leg, so that even domestic tourists, who should be the mainstay of our tourism industry during the “lean months” and proverbial “bad times,” are repulsed.
“Cheaper to go to Hong Kong, or Siem Reap, or Taiwan”, our compatriots keep saying.
Indeed, when a pop-band once visited the country last year, many Filipinos preferred to go to Taiwan, where the same band had a concert. Why? The cost of travel, hotel and plane fare included, plus the ringside concert ticket, was just a tad higher than what the concert impresario in the Philippines charged for just the ticket. The Taiwanese cut their rates and came up with a package to attract foreigners, all tied up to the popular concert.
“Naka-libre ka pa ng biyahe at dalawang tulog”, a Filipino visitor told one of my staff during the concert. So he and his family added two more nights in Taipei on top of the tour package.
Tourism management is a complex thing, but the economic rewards and the multiplier effect can be quite enormous. It’s just a mix of the right strategy, creative marketing, adequate infrastructure, good public-private partnerships, and taking the long view instead of the get-rich-quick culture that has always been the bane of Philippine business culture.
And, never forget, the domestic traveller, especially the millennials who are more adventurous, more travel enthusiastic than ever before.