Going solo: how China’s backpackers are boosting hidden parts of Taiwan’s economy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 6:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 10:48pm

Exploring foreign lands as part of an organised tour has its advantages. A set itinerary of excursions, meals and hotel stopovers means you don’t have to waste precious sightseeing time on planning your next move.

But for mainland Chinese tourists heading to Taiwan, the traditional group tour has been losing its appeal.

The attractions they visit aren’t the same as where group tourists go. They’re more spread out and can freely go to all these places without the restrictions of schedules
Chao Chih-min, Taiwan tourism bureau

A growing number of adventurous mainland travellers are jetting off to the island on their own instead of as part of a package deal. And that has brought unexpected benefits to the island’s economy, particularly the more obscure parts of the hospitality and services sectors.

Their independence from a restrictive schedule planned by a tour operator leaves these solo holidaymakers free to get off the beaten track and pump their cash into parts of the island’s economy that locals might bypass.

Instead of getting around on organised coach excursions, they will tend to use public transport; they will eat in lesser-known restaurants serving exotic local cuisine they cannot find at home; they will shy away from luxury accommodation, favouring instead the charm of a boutique hotel or even the gritty experience of a hostel; they are more likely to explore the back alleyways or search for trinkets among the stalls of a dusty street market; and, of course, they will often be drawn to the less famous landmarks.

“The attractions they visit aren’t the same as where group tourists go,” said Chao Chih-min, a section head under Taiwan’s tourism bureau. “They’re more spread out and can freely go to all these places without the restrictions of schedules.”

They are even more likely than tourists travelling in groups to see Taiwan as a shopping hub for luxury items.

When Jasmine Niu visited Taipei in 2015, a friend from her native mainland asked her to pick up a Louis Vuitton handbag that was sold out in just about every other country. Against all odds, she found it.

“It was so popular that it sold out everywhere in Europe and other places,” said Niu, a 38-year-old writer from Beijing. “She asked me to have a look at the Louis Vuitton shop in Taipei, and she was actually not expecting anything. However, I finally got her this bag. I think it implies that the purchasing power in Taiwan is not very strong.”

Taiwan’s services industry, which contributes to about 60 per cent of the island’s US$520 billion economy, has received a sizable boost from the rise in independent mainland travellers.

Revenue from lodging in Taiwan grew 42 per cent to US$5 billion in the first five years after the island’s government first permitted independent mainland travellers to visit in 2011, allowing them to glimpse a place they had heard about since childhood but that for security reasons most could not visit before. Food and beverage income rose 20 per cent over that period to US$21.8 billion.

The number of mainland tour groups coming to Taiwan shrank about 18 per cent last year from a record 3.34 million arrivals in 2015. The decline was due to the mainland government withholding exit permits to exert economic pressure on Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, whose election in early 2016 chilled relations because of her refusal to accede to the mainland’s preconditions for relations.

Individual tours have defied the chill, however, with non-group trips by mainlanders to Taiwan little changed at about 1.3 million last year, according to National Immigration Agency data.

Although group tourists outspend their self-guided peers by 20 per cent – an average of US$295 per person per day, compared with US$245 – they tend to spend much of this on the same hotels, coach lines and souvenir shops that serve a few major attractions, giving a limited boost to the broader services sector.

Solo visitors tend to be more adventurous than their group counterparts, browsing for souvenirs in Taipei’s Ximending pedestrian retail district or exploring the historic streets in the northern coastal town of Danshui. Many of them choose to stay in down-market hotels in a band of old Taipei running from Ximending to the railway station.

Food is a major draw for independent mainland travellers. They were after snacks, Taiwanese aboriginal meals and foreign food such as Korean, said Yen Chuang-lu, an associate with Martin Travel in Taipei. That kind of cuisine is either more expensive or harder to find on the mainland.

“They can be curious and spend quite a bit of money,” Yen said. “The choice range is bigger. You can serve yourself, so whether a meal is cheap or expensive is up to you.”

So many solo tourists have read about a particular Taipei noodle restaurant on a Chinese-language blog that diners crowd around outside clutching their bowls and plastic spoons for lack of seating inside. Heavily read blogs include mafengwo.com and qyer.com.

“They are impressed with Taiwan’s services sector,” said Tseng Yen, chief executive of iBeenGo, a Taipei travel service for non-group tourists. “In terms of what they expect to eat in Taiwan, there are the small delicacies. These types of food include minced pork rice and all sorts of food in night markets.”

This crush on local food helps smaller vendors such as Chen Wei-hong, who has been selling dumplings and curry rice for 13 years in Ximending. “They have no special eating habits but they’re always satisfied,” she said.

A few blocks away from Chen’s eatery, the 160-room Green World Hotel ZhongHua counts independent mainland tourists as 20 to 30 per cent of its guests.

That had changed very little since Taiwan’s presidential election, deputy general manager Wu Yu-chi said.

They chose his hotel because of its convenience and solid “quality”, he said. Often they book the better rooms at more than US$100 per night instead of the windowless ones.

“From what I can tell, they’re not that different from other guests,” Wu said. “Their consumption power is just a bit higher than people from Hong Kong and Macau. They’ll want the mid-range rooms and upwards.”

As they can read Chinese, the official language on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, mainland tourists find it easy to navigate around on buses or trains or get from A to B on Taipei’s rental bikes. They often take the subway to traditional tourist hot spots such as the National Palace Museum, as well as lesser-known attractions they notice online.

It is not just Taiwan’s small tourism businesses that are benefiting from the shift away from large package tours. The solo visitors themselves are finding their trips more fulfilling, according to research.

Seventy-three per cent of surveyed individual tourists said they were “extremely satisfied” with Taiwan’s services, compared with a mere 59 per cent of group tours saying so, Taiwan tourism bureau manager Kao Tsai-yi said, citing a 2015 poll.

“My most memorable impression was that Taipei was flourishing and the snacks were pretty good,” said Cai Yi, a 57-year-old shipping company worker from Beijing who rode trains around much of Taiwan during a week-long trip. “Also my impression was that it’s quite clean there and comfortable. Everyone is dedicated to their work, including bus operators and people in hospitality.”