How is Taiwan’s tourism industry surviving its biggest-ever Covid surge?

Before the first weekend in July, Huang Meng-feng of Taipei drove the entire north-to-south length of Taiwan so his children could romp through the sand at Little Bay, a warm-water swimming beach in the resort township of Kenting.

His group of seven travellers picked Kenting because they cannot take overseas holidays without a four-night quarantine period upon their return. The beachside township feels far from Taipei and lacks its urban crowds. Huang also said he believes Kenting offers a safeguard against daily Covid-19 infection rates that have surged into the five digits since mid-May.

Huang’s domestic travels reflect a trend around Taiwan. People across the island, which cut off international inbound tourists in March 2020 and has faced its own record number of Covid-19 cases this year, are taking summer holidays away from home. But they’re doing so in a calculated way that supports outdoor recreation rather than packed spaces – a trend that’s bad news for tourism operators who are struggling to get by.

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“It should be due to the government’s stance on the pandemic, which is to live together with it, so people think it’s not so terrifying,” the 42-year-old traveller said, explaining why his group of two families didn’t mind sitting under a parasol as the occasional stranger sauntered past. “Just don’t go to a place where you get into crowds of people.”

The number of travellers visiting major domestic tourist attractions increased from more than 3 million in June 2021 – at the peak of Taiwan’s mandatory shutdowns – to more than 19 million in October as vaccination rates rose and officials allowed a reopening of businesses, Tourism Bureau figures show.

Monthly figures held steady at between 19 million and 21 million from November through April. Covid-19 resurfaced in April. Data has not been released for May or June.

This year’s lack of closures and social-distancing rules have revived domestic travel as families find time over the summer, said Darson Chiu, deputy macroeconomic forecasting director with the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research.

[T]he government has not imposed a shutdown, so domestic tourists’ willingness to travel has not been significantly affected
Darson Chiu, Taiwan Institute of Economic Research

Taiwan’s ever-growing vaccination rate is raising the comfort level of travellers, Chiu added. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Centre says more than 80 per cent of the island’s population is fully vaccinated.

“The infection rate of the new variant virus is high, but the probability of severe illness is low, and the government has not imposed a shutdown, so domestic tourists’ willingness to travel has not been significantly affected,” Chiu said.

Taiwan’s infections from Omicron have come down after weeks of reaching more than 80,000 per day at the start of June.

Kenting’s commercial hub now, as before, comes to life around dusk. Tourists stroll double-file along both sides of Kenting Road, the chief thoroughfare, jousting with tour buses as they munch fried milk balls and seaweed-flavoured corn on the cob.

When cases crested just over a year ago in May, the Central Epidemic Command Centre closed cinemas, libraries, recreation venues and restaurants, while limiting private events to four people. The restrictions were gradually lifted in August and September. Officials have said this year that they would avoid mandating closures, as 83 per cent of people have been vaccinated at least twice.

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About 9,500 tour guides, 2,800 travel agencies and 3,400 hotels operate in Taiwan. Many have ridden out the pandemic on government subsidies.

Little by little, tourists are returning to Kenting while “protecting themselves” by keeping away from crowded indoor spaces, said Hsiung Su-mei, manager of the Tropical Fish beach clothing shop along Kenting Road, as just three people shopped in her one-room store on a recent day. The shop, which has been in business for about 30 years, saw its worst slump last year, Hsiung said.

At the Huashan 1914 Creative Park in central Taipei, craft sellers and cafes have lost business, though the flow of people in outdoor plazas held steady during Omicron, said Liu Yi-ling with the park’s event-planning department. The 19,800-square-metre site’s plazas regularly draw magic shows and temporary cultural exhibitions operated out of booths.

Large events restarted in June after a pause, Liu said, bringing more visitors. The park closed for 73 days in 2021 to follow government orders. More than 2 million people still attended events last year despite the closure period.

“At Huashan, because it has lots of outdoor space, visitor counts now are as high as ever,” Liu said. “As long as it’s not raining, outdoor events are really active.”

Just north of the capital city, masses of day travellers walk the coastal promenade in Danshui. But throughout greater Taipei, many normally popular bars and pizzerias fetch just a handful of customers – or even none at all – save for any outdoor seating.

In the United States, which also allowed travel during its early 2022 Omicron outbreak, those intent on trips visited the outdoors for golf, bicycling or hiking, said Terry Selk, founder of the US trade advocacy group Tourism Expert Network. Some spots that offered outdoor recreation “became inundated with volumes of visitors because of the limited other options”, he said.

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Vendors in Kenting say business is stable but below pre-pandemic levels. Roadside spaces, which once supported sellers of chicken wraps and frog-shaped music boxes, sit empty. One food vendor guessed that 100 of her colleagues had quit during the pandemic.

At Kenting’s South Bay, just 17,000 people showed in April as Omicron began to hit, compared with about 42,800 in March and 20,500 a month earlier, according to Tourism Bureau data. Visitor counts began slipping in April at Taiwan’s landmark Taroko and Yushan national parks, too.

The six rooms at the Jin Hai Hotel, one among dozens of cottage-like hotels, had no bookings ahead of the July 2-3 weekend, which coincided with the start of children’s summer school breaks and family getaways, co-operator Chen Shen-chung said. Normally the rooms stay full throughout the summer, Chen said.

He suspects would-be tourists are just staying home. “We’re not getting the orders we usually see,” Chen said as he sat, alone, on a couch in his lobby next to the unstaffed reception desk.

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