Showing posts with label international_tourism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label international_tourism. Show all posts

Sunday, March 3, 2019

No, those MRT station codes are not useful

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An article ran in CommonWealth Magazine recently about the usefulness of Taipei MRT's use of Hanyu Pinyin, and the letter/number coding system for the stations, pointing out that some visitors were "still getting lost" in Taipei, because they didn't speak Chinese and therefore didn't know how to pronounce station names like Da'an, Qilian, Xindian etc etc.

Now, in the past 5 years or so I've encountered exactly one lost person. It's not that hard, the maps are quite clear (the exits in relation to where one wants to go above-ground are less clear, however). But CommonWealth says it's a thing:


Donna is a Canadian studying Chinese in Taiwan. She chose to live near the Da’an MRT station for its convenient location. Yet the first time she met with her landlord, she was an hour late because she was unable to find Da’an Station on an English-language map, which indicated the station name as “Daan”. They way she pronounced the name, it sounded like the single character da (“big” or “great” in Mandarin), rather than the compound name Da’an (da + an), the standard Romanization rendering.


Yeah, okay, I get that it can be difficult to pronounce the station names if you are not familiar with Pinyin, and I'm sympathetic to non-Mandarin speaking visitors who get confused. But as some folks have pointed out:





I'm not defending it, but part of life in Taiwan is understanding that the competing and often incorrectly-applied Romanization systems are pure chaos, and there can be no order arising from them. This is most likely because there is a lot less agreement on the trajectory of Taiwanese culture, and it shows in battles over Romanization, which often act as symbolic battlegrounds for the minority in Taiwan who want the country to remain as close to China as possible (if not integrate completely), and the majority who don't. Contrast this to, say, Seoul, where my husband lived just as the old Romanization system for Korean was on its way out as a new one was implemented, and the transition went much more smoothly, with far less chaos and overall entropy.

It would be better if we could standardize. It would be great if we didn't spell 中和 as Zhonghe, Chungho, Jhonghe, Jhongho, Zeüngho, Zongh1983q, Jh0ñg0, Zheungheau, JZH*YFEJK¯\_(ツ)_/¯@)(jfh!!!  or whatever.

I don't even care how we do it anymore, though I have a personal preference for Pinyin despite it being from China (hey even a broken clock is right twice a day). I would prefer that whichever system we use be implemented correctly - for Pinyin, that means apostrophes and perhaps even tone markers. If we use the deeply annoying and old-timey looking Wade-Giles, then the apostrophes are necessary. Otherwise, how am I supposed to know whether, say, someone named Cheng Chi-chong pronounces their name Zheng Ji-chong, Cheng Chi-zhong, Zheng Zhi-chong, Cheng Zhi-zhong, Zheng Qi-zhong or whatever combination of these it might be?

But I also daresay that a part of "studying Chinese", especially in Taiwan, is understanding that tHeRe CaN bE nO oRdEr FrOm ChAoS. Welcome to Taiwan, m'loves. Get used to it?

The CommonWealth article then goes on to talk about the coding system:


As for the station coding system embarked on this month, TRTC relates that it is responsible only for adding codes on this project, and not for revisions to the Romanization of metro system names.

With a sizable sum of NT$30 million having been spent on the project, domestic traveler Ms. Kuo remarked that the addition of station codes has absolutely no impact on her, except perhaps for making everything a little more complicated.

However, in the effort to gain more overseas visitors, rather than spending a lot of money to codify the metro system, the money would be better spent on an overall rectification of MRT station names, Hanyu Pinyin, and signage, as helping visitors understand and spell the words properly is the most user-friendly international practice.



On this I agree. The coding system is completely useless.


The reason why? Nobody local uses them, nobody local knows them, and that's probably not going to change.

So if you need to ask directions, you'll probably be asking someone local, and they won't know because they don't know the codes. They're not helpful at all for getting information from others. And if you are just trying to read a map, you don't need to know how a station's name is pronounced, you just need to match the letters of the station name on the LED scroll on the train or on the platform to the one on the map you are using.

With that in mind, let me tell you about that one lost person I met. I was with a friend (who happens to be Taiwanese and speaks excellent English, having gotten her PhD in the US) entering Da'an station, and a lost looking foreign woman approached my friend while I was adding money to my card. She asked my friend - who, again, is local - whether the station we were at was "R2".

My friend looked at her blankly, like, "huh?"

"R2? Is this R2? I was supposed to get off at R2 which is the terminus, but the train stopped here but this doesn't seem right. Is it R2? I think the map says it's R5? I'm so confused!"

My friend: "R....2? R...5?"

I walked up to them to see what the deal was just as my friend figured out what on earth she was talking about. We all walked over to a map and showed her that she'd boarded a train terminating at Da'an, not her destination of Xiangshan, so she needed to get back on the red line train in the same direction.

She kind of rushed off as I tried to advise her not to use the codes to ask directions, because nobody local knows them so they actually create confusion when trying to ask directions.

I really hope she figured it out on her own.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sorry Kaohsiung, but Barcelona you ain't

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The view from the British Consulate at Takao
You're a pretty city, Kaohsiung, and I enjoy visiting you, but you can't justify a tourism tax


So, Big Uncle Dirk Han Kuo-yu is talking about introducing a foreign tourism tax in Kaohsiung. As Taiwan News reported (yes, Taiwan News does report things), the tax would be aimed at foreign tourists, not domestic ones, charging (for example) NT$100/day, typically payable at hotels.

In this way, the plan is modeled on city taxes currently in place in several European cities which are also popular tourist destinations. This year alone, I paid tourism taxes in Lisbon, Porto, Rome and Siena (and may have paid one in Milan; I don't remember.) The taxes in Europe range from €1 (or less) to as much as €3 per day.

With that in mind, Kaohsiung's proposed tax would be at the high end even for major European destinations. Rome, for example, was €3/day. NT$100 is about US$3/day.

I have a few issues with this. I'm not against tourism taxes generally - the infrastructure of many major European cities has to support not only residents but visitors. Despite the adage that "if you want less of something, tax it; if you want more of something, subsidize it", the taxes are low enough that they are unlikely to deter tourists, especially those who've traveled a long way.

That said, such taxes are usually levied in places where tourism is already strong. Dirky-doo wants to 'prioritise tourism' which doesn't seem to be particularly strong in Kaohsiung (some discussion of numbers found below). The effect won't be brushed off as a minor fee, as it generally is in other places where tourism numbers are already massive. It will deter tourists, not promote them. How exactly are these two policies meant to align? Or, perhaps Big Uncle Dirk is full of crap and always has been, and it doesn't matter if his ideas make no sense jointly or severally?

It makes sense that, in addition to bolstering the economy through spending on their visit, that tourists should also contribute directly to the local government for the purpose of maintaining the infrastructure that they themselves strain. How much of this money actually goes to this, however, is not at all clear. For example, this explainer of where Penang's tourist taxes go doesn't look at all as though they do anything useful. I wouldn't want my money going to some committee organizing useless conferences and chartering flights from Wuhan. Some discussions of tourism tax have the revenue going into general government operational funds - also not a strong sell to tourists wondering why they're paying out.

But let's be honest here. It doesn't seem to me that Kaohsiung is a city whose infrastructure is unduly strained by the number of tourists who visit. If anything, tourism numbers there are...okay, but flagging, though the data is a bit outdated here. You can find some more numbers in the various tables here - they're national statistics, not Kaohsiung-specific, and relevant data is spread across several spreadsheets.

But these national numbers for Taiwan can be compared to, say, the number of tourists going to Barcelona, Spain alone (one city - not even all of Spain, let alone all of Europe). Barcelona is a good example as it's a city which is increasingly suffering from a glut of tourists it can't handle, and which locals increasingly don't want to handle. (Barcelona's tourism tax is variable based on the accommodation chosen).

I know you do get tourists, Kaohsiung. But I'm sorry, you are not Barcelona.

Kaohsiung, honey, you don't have massive infrastructure or overcrowding issues the way European cities do. Your public transit system is finally turning a profit (which I'm not even sure public transit needs to do, but isn't a bad thing.) There aren't hordes of foreigners crowding your streets or causing environmental damage. You don't need the money for the same reasons that European cities do.

What's more, I don't really think Kaohsiung has the draws that these other cities do. While its architectural heritage interests me, it's not exactly mind-blowing to your average international visitor. There's no Roman Forum, Sagrada Familia or even Jeronimos Monastery or Sao Jorge castle in Kaohsiung. The city has gotten brighter and lovelier over the years (so Big Uncle Dirk campaigning on it being a dingy old city run into the ground by the DPP is especially offensive to me in how deliberately wrong it is) but it just isn't the sort of wow-bang-sparkle destination that can justify something like a tourism tax.

In fact, it's a really quick way to convince tourists to go to other parts of Taiwan. Most international visitors to Taiwan are Asian, and they don't necessarily have the spending money that tourists to Europe do (the Asians with heaps of cash head west), or if they do, they'll save that for their trip to Rome, not their trip to Kaohsiung.

And, of course, it also leads to a few other questions.

First, how would visitors from China be treated? In the statistical links above, you can see that they are treated separately from other foreign arrivals. Yet they are the biggest group of non-domestic tourists by a very wide margin, so not taxing them would basically invalidate the whole point of the tourism tax to begin with. Dirk is an unabashed unificationist dressed in a populist's clothing and, although I'm speculating here, probably conflates "promoting tourism" with "promoting Chinese tourism", which is apparent given his desire to increase flight connections to China (ignore the dumb headline). I would not at all be surprised if he declared that visitors from China were "domestic" and therefore not subject to the fee.

Second, most other "foreign" visitors to Kaohsiung actually live in other cities in Taiwan, like me, and most visitors overall to the city are domestic (source: see Focus Taiwan link above). Although Big Uncle Dirk says domestic tourists wouldn't be included (which is not the norm in Europe, where all visitors pay as it's essentially a hotel occupancy tax). I have to wonder whether foreign residents, who are technically domestic tourists, would be similarly exempt. I know that if I found out I'd have to pay this tax because I don't look like a domestic tourist...well, see how fast I would not visit Kaohsiung, just on principle (or I'd stay with my friend in Dashe, even though that's a bit far from the city.)

Yes, tourism has a lot of indirect economic benefits; some will say that these are sufficient and it's unnecessary to add a tax on top of what tourists already spend to be in a city. However, these benefits are variable and often have deleterious costs associated with them (same link), are often not much at all if a large number of tourists are on a shoestring budget (say, gap year kids in Thailand or people on cut-rate Chinese group tours). There are also a number of disadvantages including exploitation of local labor and environmental effects, and most tourism dollars appear not to stay in the local economy (ignore the jingoistic headline). This makes sense; for example, in developing countries, labor costs are low relative to what major hotel chains charge for rooms. Most of that money likely goes to the international conglomeration that owns the hotel, not the local economy that the hotel is in, though there may be other economic benefits.

But I don't see how any of it matters for Kaohsiung, a city whose main economic driver is not tourism, and a city which doesn't experience the worst effects of tourism (aside from some slight overcrowding at Shizhiwan and Cijing Island). Why do they need a tourism tax which will drive tourists away, won't be charged to the bulk of tourists because they're domestic, may not be charged to Chinese tourists, and therefore just causes annoyance without much benefit, and arising from no great need?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Go see "Nude" in Kaohsiung - and Taiwan, promote your events better!

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Go see Nude!

Last weekend, I had the good fortune to go to Kaohsiung for a few days to take part in a tourism-related conference. That part was interesting, but not something I feel the need to blog about.

Being down there, however, gave me the chance to see one of my oldest and closest friends in Taiwan. Helping to run the family business mean she doesn't have a lot of time to come to Taipei, so we often see each other when I'm able to head down south. For those of you who think I'm a public transit snob who won't grace an old-school Taiwanese scooter with her precious princess bum, I actually had a blast riding around Kaohsiung county (technically 'city' but that was a stupid change and I won't dignify it) and downtown on the back of her scooter. I just won't drive one myself, because I value my life.


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Anyway, we decided to check out the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Art, which is currently hosting "Nude", an exhibit of works on loan from the Tate Modern in London.

The theme of the exhibit is nudity in modern art, and it discusses (with well-planned wall panels in English and Chinese) the evolution of nudity in art through the late 19th century to the modern era. It includes some stunning - and some head-scratching - cutting-edge modern work along side classics by Matisse, Rodin, Renoir and Picasso.

To be frank, it was just an amazing exhibit. It was fine art of a high calibre which is a real treat in Taiwan, with a smattering of well-known masters but not necessarily focusing only on the big names. It featured Rodin's Kiss, which is one of the great works of Western sculpture. The evening we went, a concert was being planned around it featuring modern works of classical music.

Photographs were not allowed, so you'll have to make do with a shot of the brochure and some postcards I purchased.



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A Matisse and a Nevinson



The exhibit runs through October 28 and costs NT$280 (with concessions including a student discount), so you still have time. Go see it!

I mean, I was just in London. I went to the Tate Modern. I didn't get to see stuff this great there!

Here's what keeps nagging me: I had heard that this was taking place through the local grapevine, though it wasn't promoted in any way that made a huge impact on me. I had forgotten that it was still running, and in fact though I wouldn't get to see it as I was away for most of the summer. My local friend had to remind me that it was still an option.

When I got back to my hotel, I searched a bit to see where news of the exhibit could be found by tourists (plenty if information is available in Chinese, and the exhibit seemed to be locally popular, with the museum staying open until 8:30pm that Friday). A few articles from over the summer mentioned it, including the Focus Taiwan one linked above. After that, nothing.

A visitor searching for events in Kaohsiung in September or October (perhaps even August) would have trouble finding out that this exhibit existed, especially if they were a foreign tourist searching in English. The information is there, but it's hard to find for travelers. About to attend a conference on tourism promotion in Taiwan, this struck me as especially strange.

As a traveler in Kaohsiung - although a domestic one, as Taipei is my home - I was keen to see the exhibit, and yet would likely not have thought to go if not for my friend. And I actually had known about it! Imagine a foreign tourist here who hadn't seen any of the local news items featuring it when it opened. They'd have no idea.

Here's an example of what I mean. If you search for events in Kaohsiung, you might come across this website by the Kaohsiung City Government. It's actually a pretty good website in a variety of languages, which is already exceptional for Taiwan (where websites in English are often so terribly-designed, unclear and devoid of real information that they are essentially unusable and, I have to assume, only exist for decorative purposes or so that someone could give their nominally-English-speaking nephew a website development contract).

But if you actually search for events, say, this weekend, this is what you get:



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Same thing for no keyword, "art", "museum" and "nude"


Nothing.

Put in some keywords (I tried "museum", "art", "nude" and "tate") - still nothing. A tourist using this site would never have found the sublime exhibit I was lucky to see.

It really seems as though events in Taiwan are either heavily publicized but terrible, or great but not promoted well or consistently.


So, hey, Taiwan. You can do better. You have interesting events that travelers will want to know about. Make sure they do!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Re-learning Taiwan

IMG_0283When you think of tourism in Taiwan - domestic and, to some degree perhaps, international - you probably think of at least a few of these:

- Night markets
- Old streets
- Local crafts (e.g. woodcarving or porcelain)
- Regional foods (e.g. 肉圓 in Zhanghua and mochi in Hualien)
- "Taiwanese" culinary cultural icons (think the toilet restaurant and bubble tea)
- Shopping and eating in Taipei, including the massive ATT4Fun and eslite
- Hiking, cycling etc.
- "Cultural creative parks" like Songshan Tobacco Factory and Huashan
- The National Palace Museum
- Tourist destinations like Jiufen, Alishan, Sun Moon Lake, Tainan, Kenting and Taroko Gorge
- (Maybe) Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
- Indigenous festivals and dances
- Temple festivals

Some of these are great - Tainan is unimpeachably fantastic, though perhaps growing a bit gentrified or at least on the cusp of it happening - and the outdoor sports are bar-none amazing.

For the rest, though, slowly and steadily most of the pleasure I might have once been able to derive from them has been chipped away over the years as I seek to learn more about Taiwan.

Night markets are still kinda great, but a lot of the "famous" foods are made famous by savvy promotion rather than actual deliciousness, and with the piling on of food scandals over the years, I can never be quite sure that the snacks I'm getting are safe to ingest.

I appreciate the attempt to preserve the architecture of Taiwan's old streets - and some still do a reasonably good job of this (Hukou, Xiluo and Xinpu are still quite nice, and Dihua Street is still on the right side of fun, although I worry the scales will tip). Yet, a number of them have been turned into shopping drags selling touted "local delicacies" and shop after shop of "traditional items" (think old-fashioned kids' toys and wooden massage implements). They're basically all the same, nothing local or special about them.

Those local crafts? Well...I can't say I'll be buying any Taiwanese wood products or returning to Sanyi anytime soon. And Yingge sells some lovely ceramics, but historically was more known for making bricks, not fine vases.


Regional foods? Michael Turton has already covered that minefield:

All over Taiwan, if you say a city name, like Changhua or Hsinchu, people associate a food with it automatically (ba wan and mi fen). Even foreigners know many of these associations. This attitude is common in Taiwan, but it is rare in the rest of the world....

Why? It’s political, of course. In most countries tourism consists of local history and nature. I grew up in Michigan, where we visited the Upper Peninsula and state parks for nature, and local battlefields and forts for history. No one ever suggested that the state’s prodigious cherry production should be its key association. But in Taiwan, the food association functions to keep locals from associating places with their history, and thus, developing associations with local history that in turn would support and build local identities… Hence, in Taiwan, local domestic tourism is not historical tourism, but food tourism.

I'll add to that some ethical issues: I love bluefin tuna, but...well...hmm. Okay maybe not.
All I gotta say about the toilet restaurant is UGH not the toilet restaurant again, and I do like bubble tea but the aforementioned food safety scandals make me a bit wary of it. Also, it's way too easy to weirdly exoticize it as some Mystical Eastern Thing that Asian People do that Civilized Countries Have Just Discovered.

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Hehuan Mountain is gorgeous - and not on the list of "famous tourist sites" in Taiwan
(sorry for the low-res photo, I took it years ago and had to gank a low-quality copy from a previous post)

Let's machine-gun through the rest of that list quickly.

Shopping in Taipei? Eslite is a huge international company, not a plucky local chain (and frankly their selection of English-language books tends towards the pedestrian, and they have a weirdly tiny selection of English-language books about Taiwan). Those Xinyi malls? I've been complaining for years that good local street-side restaurants that give Taipei its atmosphere are being gobbled up into one massive East District food court, and I do not like it one bit. For example, Opa Greek Taverna was great. Then it moved to ATT4Fun, and it's kind of terrible. We never go anymore. The Diner was a lovely place in a lane of Dunhua Road with some outdoor seating (there is still one on Rui'an Street but little-to-no outdoor seats). Now it's a big restaurant in a mall. Blech.

Those "cultural and creative parks" are pretty corporatized and rarely house the most innovative artists in Taiwan. Songshan, for example, has a Liuligongfang (or at least it used to - I haven't been in awhile and it may have closed) and is bordered by yet another eslite.

ALL THE STUFF IN THE NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM COMES FROM CHINA IT'S NOT EVEN TAIWANESE UGH. 

(I mean it's fine to visit if you are interested in Chinese history but don't go there thinking you are going to learn about Taiwan. I generally don't recommend it to visitors who are interested in Taiwan, only those who are primarily interested in China.)

And I don't even think I need to tell you what the problem is with Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.

Temple festivals? Watch out, it's not always what you think.

And are you really sure you want to go to an indigenous festival where you might not be welcome, to see performances by tribes who have been unfairly historically stereotyped as good at three things: singing, dancing and drinking?

And almost all of the famous tourist destinations listed above have been disfigured by tourist infrastructure, with Sun Moon ****ing Lake being among the most degraded. From one side you can't even see the lake from most parts of the town unless you stay in one of the expensive - and often not very good - hotels ringing it (the good ones are very expensive). Taroko is still beautiful, but marred by controversy and a very ugly cement factory with its management that has very ugly morals. Jiufen has lovely views but is so blighted with tourists that it can be difficult to enjoy these days. 

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So where did that leave me, once I came to these realizations? That everything I liked about Taiwan was a sham? That Taiwan has nothing of interest for tourists? That everything good about Taiwan was invented to keep the country from discovering its real roots?

No.

I was depressed for a time, once it really hit home that so little of what is commonly touted about Taiwan actually embodies Taiwan's strengths, and much of it has been co-opted by forces I'd rather not encourage (like the encroaching uniformity of the old streets and the ghastly tourist infrastructure in scenic spots. I figure themed restaurants aren't hurting anyone). It can be hard to take, learning that things you thought you liked had all of these layers of complexity and undercurrents of problems that make them difficult to keep loving.

I had to tear it all down to build something better - because this country has so much more to offer than sun cakes and Sun Moon Lake. I had to quite literally re-learn Taiwan so I could talk about it for what really makes it great, not just the tourist hype that is so often riddled with problems.

I won't tell people not to go to Taroko or even Alishan (I will generally advise against Sun Moon Lake but if a tourist chooses to go, they might not have an awful time), but I will recommend they go not just to Tainan - god I love that city - but to direct their attention to the national parks, the East Rift Valley, relatively quiet areas of natural beauty like Hehuanshan, Lishan, the Taoyuan grassland/Wangkengtou/Caoling Old Trail part of Yilan, and of course Taiwan's stunning outlying islands. I haven't been to Green Island yet but Matsu, Kinmen, Lanyu Island, Penghu - I love them all. I'll send them to the eastern coast of Pingdong and down to Cape Eluanbi, but have them avoid Kenting itself (there are better beaches anyhow). I'll send them to Lukang, which still has something of a small-town feel, or to explore the smaller towns of Hsinchu county by car. I'll only bring them to Jiufen on a weekday, and if we go I'll insist we hike up to the Japanese shrine above Jinguashi ("yeah you thought Taiwan was Chinese but this ain't Chinese at all"), or approach the town from the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail.

There is so much to see and do in Taiwan - take it from me, someone who's done a lot here, and yet has never actually been to Alishan - that you can have a fantastic time even if you don't go to Sun Moon Lake or buy mochi in Hualien. (Feel free to buy taro cakes in Dajia, just make sure you go to the smaller shops and get them fresh from the oven, stay away from the prepackaged ones which are...fine.)

And it's enjoy the food - just enjoy it for its own sake, eat good stuff where you find it, without buying too much into the "local food as local identity" hype. Some foods really are local - you aren't going to get better milkfish congee than in Kaohsiung, and you can't beat eel noodles or shrimp roll rice in Tainan. You just can't.

I'm still not sure how to promote this Taiwan - the Taiwan I re-learned - to the world. International tourists are more into things like the National Palace Museum than, say, an architectural history of Taipei or learning about Taiwan's vibrant civic engagement, not to mention what Taiwanese history and current political issues have to teach (and warn) the rest of the world. It took years of ripping away beliefs instilled by tourism promotion to see what makes Taiwan worthwhile, a dedication visitors generally don't have (though the number of visitors who come for awhile and end up staying is surprising. We all know that person who'd planned to come for a month and backpack and now lives here full-time, or the one who came to "teach English" [heh] for a year or two and move on who is still here a dozen years later...ahem.)

But now that I know what I've re-learned, I can certainly try.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Tourism Paradox

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Taiwan, have a look in the mirror. You are just as worthy of tourism as Vietnam.


Brendan and I spent lunar new year in Vietnam - as anyone who has lived in Taiwan knows, if you don't have family to visit, it's about as boring as Christmas Day must be for foreigners in the US with nowhere to go. We usually skip town, and have only avoided Vietnam so far because we were worried that it would be more difficult to visit because they also have a lunar new year holiday (Tet, which you know if you've heard of the Tet Offensive, which I hope you have). There were some Tet-related crowds and complications, however, overall I'd say our fears were unfounded.

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And that's where my regular travel post about Vietnam ends, because frankly, you can read all you want to about it anywhere else. I actually want to talk about Taiwan, then show you some pictures from Vietnam for a related reason. In any case, Vietnam is entrenched on the tourist map, with hordes of visitors from around the world coming every day. You might even say Vietnam is the new Thailand (but hasn't quite reached the levels of "Foreigner Playland" that Thailand seems to have, or Bali, for that matter). That's not necessarily always a bad thing, but overall you don't need my input - though I'll say one thing anyway: skip the lots-of-hotels-and-so-so-beach by the highway at Nha Trang and find yourself a quieter beach (we really liked Jungle Beach, well to the north of Nha Trang). We transferred from our ride from Jungle Beach to the bus there, and even in that short glimpse I was deeply unimpressed with what was essentially a tourist drag on a strip of sand.

That's it, though. What I want to talk about is more closely related to Taiwan. It's nothing new - other people have made the same arguments - I possibly have as well, and simply forgotten - but I'll say it anyway. 

Tourists who go to Vietnam - and there are many, from every continent - are likely to come away thinking something along the lines of "wow, Vietnam is a great place in Asia for lively street life, great street food, architecture and interesting night markets! Such a cool country! Really some of the best Asia has to offer!"

The compliment would be warranted - Vietnam is truly great. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. But I couldn't help but think as these masses of folks of all different colors, creeds and national origins - though let's be honest, they were mostly white or Chinese - wandered through Hoi An's packed night market oohing and aahing over the food stalls and shopping opportunities - that Taiwan has these things too.

In fact, I think I may have exclaimed to no one in particular at some point, "hey! Taiwan has all of this too, but so few people come!"

OK, this is not entirely fair: Taiwan has a fairly bustling tourism industry, mostly made up of visitors from nearby Asian countries, and it has been on the rise since the dreaded Chinese tour groups finally, mercifully left. But it's really a small slice of the pie compared to the people pouring into Vietnam, and with noticeably fewer Westerners or anyone from any other continent. That feels so rare in Taiwan - Western backpackers - that even though I hosted one briefly (we knew each other from the old Lonely Planet Thorn Tree - remember that? I was channamasala), when I ran into some at Yonghe Soy Milk I was genuinely surprised. 

Few people not from the region come to Taiwan, so few can leave thinking "wow, Taiwan is so cool - lively street life, vibrant night markets, street food, old buildings, traditional culture - really a great destination!" All these distinctions that could be heaped on Taiwan are heaped on Vietnam.

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I can basically see exactly this at a night market in Taiwan, but tourists are enchanted by brightly colored shaved ice street stalls in Vietnam, not here. 

I could go into the reasons why this is, but will keep it brief - in the end it comes down to China trying to erase Taiwan as a unique entity in the global consciousness, and the Taiwanese government doing a poor job of promoting tourism outside of Asia. I could write a lot more about this, but I'll save that for another post.

The central question, in fact, is this:

Part of me doesn't want this to change. I would very much like to keep Taiwan to myself. Possibly, because I am a curmudgeonly old git, I would see these backpackers I am now lamenting a dearth of, should they finally descend on Taiwan, and basically think GET OFF MY LAWN. I rather like living in an undiscovered gem of a country that isn't packed with the banana pancake set, or the wealthier set that includes their parents. I like that local culture is wonderfully uncommodified. I like that Lishan, my favorite mountain town, is a gritty little place where the most interesting things to do are read books and enjoy the view as you eat fresh fruit. All of the things that can make Taiwan annoying and inaccessible (like having to rent a car to go anywhere, and never being quite sure when temple festivals are) also make it wonderful and authentic.

It's uncharitable, but I must acknowledge that aspect of my thinking. If we did get all these tourists, we could expect every town of interest - Sanxia, Beipu, Daxi, Tainan, Lugang, Jiaoxi, Hualien, Kenting, Jiufen, Jinguashi and more - they'd all be exponentially more crowded than they already are (which is pretty damn crowded). This part is obvious, but what that means is that more businesses selling crap souvenirs - as though there aren't enough already - and other things aimed entirely at tourists will start opening, and soon enough what is now confined to a single awful lane in Jiufen will be found in every one of these towns. I do not relish that. I make no secret of my dislike for tour buses - I understand why people take them, but I always try to run ahead of the crowd of people about to be disgorged, and they do clog up the roads.

This is also uncharitable of me: what makes me so special that I get to enjoy these experiences but other foreigners shouldn't be able to come for a short time to do so as well? Of course that is a logical dead-end, and I admit this. When friends and acquaintances visit, I am delighted to show them around and try to give them valuable cultural experiences, so it's a bit hypocritical of me to be okay with that but not with a greater volume of travelers.

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However, rather like someone from Sesame Street might try to push Oscar the Grouch back in his trash can so he'll stop complaining for a minute, my better nature is telling the shouty old man who lives in my heart to quit it and think rationally.

Because, despite all of these issues, I do think it is worth braving the dreaded tour buses and banana pancakers that increased global (as in, beyond Asia) tourism would bring for the many benefits it could have.

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We have gorgeous historic architecture too!
First and foremost, one of the reasons so many people around the world don't know much about Taiwan is that they've never even considered visiting. Not everyone will read the history section of their guidebook or listen to a tour guide talking about it, but enough will do so that perhaps, just perhaps, Taiwan might escape the purgatory of having the world think whatever China wants them to think about this lovely country, because they don't care enough to inquire more deeply (that's just human nature) and haven't thought to visit and see for themselves.

Secondly, I have to say Vietnam has great tourism infrastructure. Public transport within cities is lacking - and that is a problem if you want to leave the central areas of either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City - but no matter where you are, it is reasonably easy to arrange a ride to anything you can't walk to. For those looking to save money, they can take small group tours to, say, the mausoleums and temples outside of downtown Hue, or a group tour - some small, others not - to My Son, about an hour from Hoi An. For those willing to spend a bit more, no town is too small to not have xe om, or motorbike taxis, to take you where you need to go, and you can always arrange a car and driver (at least in the more touristy areas we visited). Hotels are not only happy to do this, they expect it. It's part of their job.

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In Taiwan you might well find it impossible to see much of the scenic beauty of the country because, while you can usually get a bus to the general area of a place, to go beyond that you have to drive. There are often no taxis outside of the cities, and when there are, they are expensive to charter - not that it matters if you simply can't get one. Once in one of the smaller towns, including my perennial favorite place to get away (Lishan, in the far east of Taichung county - I refuse to call it Taichung city because it's not a city), you basically have to hike/walk/bike or depend on the kindness of locals to give you short rides. Otherwise, if you cannot or do not want to drive, you're basically screwed in much of the country. It's still one of my biggest complaints about Taiwan outside of Taipei. People defend it - oh you can just rent a scooter (not everyone can drive a scooter, nor wants to, and some foreigners have run into problems renting them without a specific scooter license) - but I'm sorry, it's really not okay and I do not accept feeble excuses. Don't even try, I'm not interested in hearing a weak-ass defense of Taiwan's crappy public transport at a local level (connections between cities are okay) outside of Taipei.

If we did start getting a larger volume of global tourists, I do think this would change. You'd have a lot of people who either couldn't or wouldn't want to drive, and suddenly people making money as hired drivers or running shuttle buses would start appearing in most places you might like to go. It wouldn't be complete, but it would be an improvement on a situation the government hasn't seen fit to improve otherwise. I'm not always a fan of the free market, but in this case it would probably fix the problem to have demand exist to facilitate the creation of supply. 

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It would probably also lead to more of Taiwan's heritage architecture being restored, though I could see a good amount of it being turned into yet more souvenir shops and hotels. But refurbishing a Japanese colonial building into a boutique hotel is better than letting it moulder, no?

There are downsides of course - the poor east coast would suffer terribly, with much of the best seafront property taken up by hotels and resorts a la Sri Lanka and Vietnam. All of the above issues regarding crowding wouldn't exactly go away. More of the beautiful parts of Kenting would start to look like, well, the not-beautiful part of Kenting (Kenting town, which I avoid). More of Sun Moon Fucking Lake(tm) would start to look like the annoying part of Sun Moon Fucking Lake(tm) where hotels blot out the lake view. A lot of the best of Taiwan is, frankly, too small to accommodate that many tourists. It's not a big country and the old streets, buildings and small towns are also, well, not big. Imagine tour buses descending on Beipu. A nightmare!

I don't really want to see Taiwanese culture commodified, either. I like my all-night aboriginal festivals and do not want to watch the most popular form of engaging with indigenous culture to be one-hour dances downtown, the way Kathakali, water and shadow puppets and Kandyan dance are commodified and pruned to fit tourist tastes, for tourist consumption. I can tell you a fair amount, although I'm no expert, on pas'ta'ai. I can't tell you much at all about Kandyan dance although I packed myself into a theater to watch two hours of it with about 500 other tourists. I can only tell you slightly more about Kathakali because I attended a performance while studying in southern India. But the connection isn't there the way it is with going to the all-night real deal in the mountains. I would not want the Hsinchu pas'ta'ai to become similarly commodified and agree with a friend of mine that the way these 'cultural' or 'eco' experiences are packaged for travelers is hugely problematic.

To take another example, the one temple festival I was able to pin down a date for while my cousin was in Taiwan was in Sanxia, and was so crowded with tourists - mostly domestic, probably some Chinese - that while I wasn't able to be there, my sister reports there were so many people that you couldn't really see anything. I don't want that to be every temple parade: I like seeing one go down the street, grabbing a beer at 7-11 and then chilling out, watching it go by. Some of the most attractive parts of the countryside are already crowded enough - I don't want them to become more crowded.


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On the other hand, consider Japan, where even the most rural destination usually offers some mode of transport, even if it's your hot spring hotel in the mountains picking you up from a bus station in a shuttle - and yet Japan does manage to have gorgeous countryside.

But, is it worth it to increase the international exposure of Taiwan, and get more people thinking about it as a unique place with its own unique culture and history rather than some country in Asia that they consider vaguely Chinese or confuse with Thailand? On a more secondary point, is it worth it to make the best of Taiwan more accessible to those who can't otherwise go?

Honestly - shut up Oscar - yes, I do think it is.

Not that we shouldn't do this carefully. I don't really want Taiwan to become another Thailand (as lovely as Thailand is, you have to admit, it's kind of a big-nose amusement park in some ways). I am heartened to see plenty of young, engaged Taiwanese grasping that simply swinging open the doors and offering "cultural experiences" devoid of depth to buses full of tourists is not going to be good for Taiwan. As it is now, to really appreciate and enjoy Taiwan, you have to dig. You have to do your homework. You have to know the history and cultural underpinnings to enjoy them. It's not as easy as taking a temple tour, grabbing a beer and going to the beach, the way it is in much of Southeast Asia.

I'd like to see Taiwan develop that way - if the main goal is to raise global understanding of Taiwan, then a travel experience that pushes travelers to learn more about it to appreciate it might be a good way to go (but of course would mean fewer people would come - plenty of folks do just want the easy vacation). A "you are welcome here, we have the infrastructure [please guys let's build the infrastructure, I hate having to rent cars] but we're not going to change for you" attitude, I think, is a good one to take. A "we have lots of history and historic sites, but you have to actually read the history to appreciate them" is one, too.

That may seem incompatible with attracting global tourists, but I do not think it is irreconcilable or impossible.

And now, please enjoy some photos from Vietnam.

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I will concede that outside of lantern festival in Taiwan, Vietnam has better lanterns. 


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But come on you can totally see cool tile floors and old dudes chillin' at desks in temples in Taiwan - not that most foreign tourists (outside of Asia) would know that, because they don't come. 
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No really, skip Nha Trang. This is better. 


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This is seriously the very first thing I saw in Ho Chi Minh City. 


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There was also a purple pigeon, and I have no idea how either of them got that way. 


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If you turn around and look the way Ho Chi Minh is facing, you'll see a grand boulevard full of profit-turning stores, which is kinda weird if you think about it.