Taiwan controlled the spread of COVID early — but its travel sector had to adapt to a lack of international tourism
Serena Puang is a freelance journalist who writes about accessibility, culture, language, education, and the ways they intersect. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, NBC Asian America, Teen Vogue, and more. Outside of her writing, Serena studies linguistics at Yale with a concentration in Mandarin Chinese.
Before last year, Donny Yang, a tour guide in Taiwan, spent four to six months traveling internationally every year. He was in his home in Taipei so seldom that it made sense to rent it out, so he signed a five-year rental agreement and started his travels. He was in India when the pandemic started, and he had to return home… even if he didn’t have a literal house to go to.
“Due to my travel plans, I didn’t think I’d be back in Taiwan at any point in the next five years,” Yang said. “But the pandemic screwed me over, and now that I’m back, I can’t kick just my renters out. We signed a contract.” Now Yang is bouncing between youth hostels in Taipei, staying two months before deciding if he wants to continue or try somewhere else. He’s no longer traveling (yet), but the money he gets each month from renting out his house covers his expenses. Thanks to Tai-wan’s effective handling of the virus, he’s living a quarantine free life while working on a book about his travels.
Amid a pandemic that has severely limited international travel and altered the lives of many, life in Taiwan remains largely normal due to vigilant quarantine measures, mask-ing, and contact tracing. The island, which has seen fewer than 1,000 COVID-19 cases despite its dense population of 23.8 million, is credited with one of the best responses in the world. Though travel within Taiwan is not restricted, the lack of international tourists visiting the country has still disrupted the tourism industry, causing individuals and businesses alike to shift their priorities and set their sights toward the future.
According to a statement emailed to MultiLingual, the Tai-wan Tourism Bureau is navigating the pandemic by promot-ing domestic travel and working to help those who work in the tourism industry “reshape themselves” in preparation for the future. Taiwan will likely be one of the safest countries to travel to as the pandemic subsides, and they hope that actions taken now will help the country become a “top destination for international tourists as soon as the effects of the pandemic decrease.”
In the meantime, the Taiwanese government has provided multi-billion dollar stimulus packages for those employed in the tourism industry. This included two rounds of 30,000 NTD ($1070.95) for tour guides who worked with inter-national tourists. The government also funded 120 hours of training courses that each tour guide could choose to attend. They were paid Taiwan’s 2020 minimum wage, 158NTD ($5.64), for each hour they did so. Over the summer, Taiwan’s government also provided subsidies for citizen hotel stays and domestic touring.
Despite these efforts, transitioning to domestic tourism is not without its challenges. For many Taiwanese locals, vacationing in Taiwan often doesn’t involve tour guides or other rental services hit hardest by the pandemic. Taiwan is small; one could drive all the way around the island in approximately ten hours, so domestic tourists often opt to drive in their own cars instead of taking public transit or renting a car like foreign tourists typically do. The locals also have different destinations in mind than most foreign tourists.
According to Jo Wong, the founder of Myproguide, a Taiwan-based company that hosts an online platform con-necting travelers with professional tour guides in 33 coun-tries, foreigners who haven’t been to Taiwan like to see famous landmarks and attractions in cities. Domestic tours, he says, are a completely “different market” with vacationers, mostly from cities, who want to see nature and go camping.
Figure 1: Taiwan’s most famous international landmarks include temples, churches, and the Buddha Museum, but the small island also hosts national parks and plenty of beaches.
Compared with 2019, Wong said, Myproguide lost 90% of its revenue in 2020, leading him and his cofounder, Erica Yu, to lay off approximately 60% of their staff. At the beginning of the pandemic, they tried to set up domestic tours, but they quickly found out that the market was oversaturated.
“Every travel agency is trying to do domestic tours, and that’s very competitive,” said Wong. Instead, his company is marketing to people in other countries within their network, in hopes that when the pandemic subsides, they’ll “think of Myproguide as a potential travel partner.”
One part of this marketing strategy is the introduction of digital tours — live Zoom calls during which a licensed tour guide shows people around with the help of their cellphones and a phone stabilizer. Customers often keep their cameras off and ask questions in the chat, leaving the tour guide to speak enthusiastically to a black screen. However, these virtual interactions may lead to in-person tourism in the future.
“I did not know anything about the Confucius Temple but wanted to learn about the architecture and the history and culture, and Barbie [the guide] was able to provide a very interesting virtual tour,” wrote an online reviewer of a virtual tour of Taipei’s Confucius Temples. This traveler was in the United States when they attended the virtual tour but left feeling “very interested in learning more and would love to visit the temple one day in person after COVID.”
With these changes, staffing cuts, the Tourism Bureau pay-ing for 40% of the remaining salaries, and downsizing their office, Myproguide is breaking even and even making “a little profit.”
Those who haven’t found ways to pivot within the industry have been forced to leave it for financial reasons. Some have become food delivery people, others have retired, and still others have gone back to old jobs. Two years ago, Anderson Wang was a taxi driver before he studied and passed the exam for his tour guide license. He hoped that by obtaining a professional license, he could subsidize his income and improve his socioeconomic status.
Rather than joining tour busses which typically seat 20-40 people, many tourists hire a driver-tour guide combo for their vacations, relying on the driver to take them to see the sights, make conversation along the way, and wait in the car as they take pictures. As a licensed guide, Wang could do that. Since obtaining his license, Wang has led groups of tourists, mostly from the Philippines, on English language tours, and worked as a tour guide-driver on his non-tour days. But without international tourists, he’s been forced back into making the rounds in his taxi.
When asked why he didn’t shift to domestic tourism he said, “you don’t even need a license to lead that kind of tour.” He sighed from the driver’s seat of his cab: “and my salary would be lower. When I take on a group from the Philippines, I make $3000 NTD ($107.14) per day plus tips. But if I took on a Taiwanese tour group, the industry standard is only $1500-2000 NTD ($53.57-$71.43) per day, and oftentimes, there are no tips.”
Since Taiwan has closed its borders to tourists, the foreigners in the country are not the kind who would be desperately learning basic Mandarin phrases on Duolingo two weeks before their trip. They’ve already put down roots here, invested time in learning the language, and have local friends to ask for recommendations for places to visit/eat. This may render traditional services such as travel agencies, guide books, giant tour busses, and even travel-related translation temporarily obsolete.
“I think when I came here and when most people I know came here, we all got the Lonely Planet: Taiwan book,” said Nora Murphy, who has been in Taiwan for two and a half years. “Now it’s just like sitting on our shelves because it’s all pretty much available on Google maps.” After completing an undergraduate degree in East Asian Studies and studying Mandarin intensively for a year, Murphy feels fairly confident in her ability to “get around” with her Mandarin. She gets her recommendations from coworkers and local travel blogs.
Perhaps a silver lining of this time is that travel in Taiwan is becoming more accessible. Since Taiwan is planning on phas-ing out reopening, prioritizing countries that are both geo-graphically nearby and have handled COVID-19 well, travel services are redirecting their web and social media efforts from an English-centric approach to one that prioritizes other Asian languages.
Myproguide, for example, has created a new Facebook group in Tagalog whose title translates to “Travel with Myproguide” in an attempt to appeal to tourists in the Philippines as well as Filipinos who are already in Taiwan working or studying. If trends continue, travel information that has only been avail-able in Mandarin, English, and sometimes Japanese might be available in many other languages as well.
September 2020, the Taiwan Tourism Bureau provided the hospitality industry with funds to make their facilities more accessible. These changes include setting up Muslim-friendly facilities and barrier-free rooms accessible to wheelchair users and people with other disabilities. This is part of Taiwan’s plan to “cultivate a high-level accommodation environment,” says the Bureau.
Despite these promising changes, it’s clear that traditional domestic tourism alone won’t be enough to help companies in the industry break even, so hotels, airlines, and other tour services have gotten creative. Eva Air launched “flights to nowhere” in which passengers can enjoy a Michelin star in-flight meal or even find love through speed dating at 30,000 feet before descending back into the same airport they departed from. Similarly, Dream Cruises has “Discover Taiwan” cruises which take customers to domestic locations, celebrating international holidays and festivals such as Oktoberfest along the way. At the Great Emperor Hotel in Kaohsiung, they’ve seen an influx of people staying in the hotel and treating that as a vacation, using amenities like the hotel spa in lieu of sightseeing in the city.
“It’s the restaurants within the hotels that are holding up the revenue,” said Noniko Hsu, event coordinator at the hotel. In response, she says, many hotels, including the Great Emperor, have vastly expanded their dining options. Besides the typical options of dine in or take out, customers can also choose delivery (with or without a pot), pick up, or even get a chef from the hotel to come and make the food in their kitchen at home. “We’re basically letting people know that yes, we’ve got you covered with whatever weird request you want.”
Taiwan went 253 consecutive days without a case of domes-tic transmission of COVID-19 in 2020, a streak broken by a New Zealand pilot who did not follow quarantine rules in late December and again in January 2021 with a cluster at Taoyuan General Hospital.
In response to the Taoyuan cluster, which contains 21 confirmed cases to date, the government acted swiftly: quar-antining 5,000 people, evacuating the hospital, and deploying 36 members of the Army’s chemical warfare group and 30 city government environmental workers to disinfect the area. This quick response and cautious attitude is what has allowed Taiwan to become the COVID haven it is to this day, but new precautions have consequences. After the government announced protocols for Lunar New Year, event cancellations and postponements were “immediate” and “non-stop.”
“There were a bunch of calls like ‘Sorry, we’re canceling our company’s year end party,’” said Hsu. Or even “Sorry, we’re not getting married.”
Part of Taiwan’s success is due to the preexisting infrastructure and support which allows people to do safe, outdoor activities, even when COVID anxieties run high. Kiran Rajguru, a student studying Chinese at National Taiwan University, experienced this when he set out to circumnavigate Taiwan on a bike over winter break, a popular pastime even before the pandemic. Armed with a 35-page English instruction guide from the Tourism Bureau, he set out on Route 1, “a network of highways, local roads and bike paths that one can take to travel around the island,” and made his journey in a total of 26 days, stopping to sightsee along the way.
In the long term, it remains to be seen what the future holds for tourism in Taiwan.
Continued success seems dependent on the distribution and efficacy of vaccines, and other countries recovering enough from the pandemic, both literally and economically, to make international travel desirable. Some, including Joshua Samuel Brown, the author of two editions of Lonely Planet:Taiwan, have posited that Taiwan’s use of soft power and mask diplomacy during the pandemic will lead to an influx of tourism, putting Taiwan on the map.
Taiwan seems to be banking on this as well. The Tourism Bureau is already working with influencers and US media to showcase both its success containing COVID-19 and the beauty of Taiwan, even though there is still no timeline for when it will reopen its borders to international tourism.
Donny Yang already has customers penciled in for “as soon as the pandemic is all over.” But until borders reopen, he’ll wait in the Taipei youth hostels, renewing his stays two months at a time.
EMIGRATING IN THE PANDEMIC
Jonathan Pyner is a poet, free-lance writer, and translator. He has worked as an educator for nearly a decade in the US and Taiwan, and he recently completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.
Pandemic or not, getting a job after completing my MFA would have been a challenge. Aside from the harrowing stories of friends working as adjunct instructors at community colleges, my standards were high: find me a job that provides a livable wage, benefits, time off, a friendly work environment, and a schedule conducive to an aspiring poet.
Nevertheless, the end of July was approaching, and the pandemic unemployment benefits were approaching their end. My fantasy of discovering that perfect position turned into an urgency to support myself without contributing to the spread of the virus. I took a part-time job writing about localization, but living in California was expensive.
I had spent a few years in Taiwan prior to my graduate work, teaching international high school students SAT English strategy at a local Taipei institute. While I never intended to return to the College-Board-Industrial-Complex, Taiwan had numerous draws as a country that offers universal healthcare and an affordable cost of living, not to mention as a global leader in the pandemic response.
Besides travel restrictions and a hard lockdown around 2020’s Lunar New Year, the country had largely remained open all year. My Instagram stories were filled with friends reading in cafes, sharing hot pot, and singing at KTV (the karaoke where groups rent their own room). Four months into the 2020 United States pandemic non-response, one might imagine my envy. I contacted my previous employer to begin the paperwork for my return.
The process turned out to be quite grueling. In normal times, passport holders from most anglophone countries would have a relatively easy time getting in and finding a job. Most of the process of obtaining a resident visa could be completed in Taiwan after arrival. However, applying from abroad, I ran into several complications.
First, even with three years of immersive study in Manda-rin, I could barely make it three responses into my phone call with the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco, whose English-speaking agents were taking time off for family. I then needed to interview with doctors in my local SF Bay Area clinics who would be willing to fill out my health information on a form written mostly in Traditional Chinese. Finally, I had to mail all my documents between TECO and Taiwan. Beginning in July, it was mid-November by the time I booked my flight.
Completing my mandatory home quarantine fourteen days after arrival — which, after nearly a year of lockdown, felt surprisingly fast — I emerged into an unexpected, yet also unsurprising, kind of culture shock. Not only was my Mandarin embarrassingly rusty, but I had also spent 2020 interacting with only about six people in person. Now, here I was feeling panicked whenever I found myself in a room with more than a handful of bodies.
Still, I have spent the past few months encouraging myself to go out, teach my students, take Chinese classes, and participate in activities that might acclimate me to normal life more quickly and make Taiwan feel like home again. After all, vaccine or not, I may be here for the long term.