This group, from Jiangsu province, of 50-something company executives stayed at one of Taipei’s most expensive hotels, then in a five-star resort on the island’s east coast. Each person paid 8,800 yuan for the six-day trip.
They made a splash, attracting media attention as Taiwan’s first “high-end tour group”, to use the wording of government officials who created the tourism programme under which they visited Taiwan.
The new scheme fast-tracks entry permits that might otherwise take 40 days. In return, the tourists stay in five-star hotels for two out of every three nights, spend at least NT$1,500 a day per person on lunch and dinner combined and travel by tour bus no more than 250km per day – allowing for more time on the ground.
High-end trips such as these are expected to raise the income of the Taiwanese hospitality sector. The new offer also invites tourists considered less likely to shout, litter or drive hard bargains with merchants – growing sources of irritation among the Taiwanese who seldom saw mainland Chinese before 2008.
“It was the first time I had never seen a smoker on a tour bus,” said Hai Ying-lun, whose firm Pro Tour planned itineraries for the group of 12. “And, they had come with experience travelling abroad.”
Taiwan opened to regular mainland Chinese travel groups in 2008 shortly after the island’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, took office and entered into dialogue with Beijing after decades of hostility that choked off economic relations.
The hospitality industry has benefited as Taiwan has gradually increased the number of arrivals per day – up to 5,000 group tourists now, as well as non-group travellers. That daily quota would not apply to wealthy tourists. Mainland Chinese tourist arrivals in Taiwan totalled 2.8 million last year.
Inbound tourism revenues rose to NT$437 billion last year from NT$187.1 billion six years ago, the president told a Taipei tourism fair in March. Over the past year, littering and heavy traffic from tour buses prompted angry Taiwanese to mount a mock cannon on a popular beach in the southern port city of Kaohsiung.
Reports that a tourist’s child was allowed last year to urinate in public – a common sight in mainland China – stirred more popular disapproval. More typically, groups of mainland Chinese travellers irk locals by shouting and making merchants bristle by bargaining hard on small purchases, also common in mainland China.
Tourists, on the other hand, complain of tiring road trips on old buses and excessive mandatory stops at stores. Organisers of high-end tours will not be allowed to require shopping stops but can visit department stores on request.
Because buses, hotels and restaurants look to mainland China for business, tour guides ask their guests to follow local customs but have not taken other measures to ease resentment among locals or raise the quality of trips.
Taiwanese people should accept the unique habits of all foreign travellers, said Chen Ying-ting with the Taiwan Visitors Association. Taiwan’s central government Tourism Bureau had no forecast or goal for the number of high-end tour groups, bureau spokeswoman Chen Chiong-hua said.
The hospitality sector should expect arrivals of high-end groups to increase overall visitor numbers by 10 per cent, said Anthony Liao, the president of Phoenix Tours International in Taipei.
Agents in Taiwan welcomed those groups particularly because their mainland Chinese counterparts were required to pay up front rather than wait indefinitely as other mainland Chinese groups did, he said.
“Groups from America and Europe pay up front and we welcome that, but mainland Chinese tours pay once they have returned and delay payment for a long time,” Liao said. “We find that rather inconvenient.”
Big names in the hospitality industry, especially hotels, would be eagerly ringing up travel agents to get a share of the wealthy tourists, he said.
“This programme will help the quality of travel, so we are optimistic about it,” said Jeason Chen, a publicist at the tourism bureau in Kaohsiung. “If I’m a hotel or a restaurant, of course I’m going to want to get involved. “I’m sure the businesses in Kaohsiung will make preparations for this.”
The 85 Sky Tower Hotel, which occupies the upper levels of the southern city’s flagship high-rise, plans to vie with its peers by offering lofty harbour views and proximity to a major library, a waterside meeting centre and three shopping malls.
“When groups of high-end business people stay, that helps in adding to hotel revenue, and the spin-off effects can be passed on to related merchants who could discuss opportunities to co-operate,” said a spokesperson for the hotel, which has 585 rooms that can go as high as NT$11,000 a night. For meals, the first group of wealthy tourists used both expensive restaurants and middle-end alternatives to get a full flavour of Taiwan cuisine, said Hai.
In Taipei, the 12-storey, hillside Grand Hotel hosted the island’s first high-end tour group and is prepared to receive more in its 500 rooms that start at NT$8,800 per night.
The hotel, with Chinese-style architecture and a cavernous red-carpeted lobby lined with jade displays, expected to draw high-end travellers keen on history, said hotel public relations manager Chen Kai-huang.
“A lot of high-end travellers want to see a hotel with Taiwanese characteristics. That’s to let them know how we’ve developed,” Chen said.