Friday, August 28, 2009

Visiting Taiwan after Typhoon Morakot

Here's the complete text of an article I wrote last week for Taiwan Today, a central government website, about the impact of Typhoon Morakot on tourism.

"Within hours of the Jinshuai Hotel toppling into the raging waters of the Zhiben River in southeast Taiwan Aug. 9, footage of the six-story building’s spectacular demise had been seen by millions of people in Asia, North America and Europe.

The clip is unlikely to bring tourists flocking to Taiwan, and in the wake of Typhoon Morakot—the calamity that led to more than 200 confirmed deaths as well as the hotel’s collapse—the island's travel industry faces serious problems.

Reuters reported Aug. 14 that the tourism sector would see total losses of NT$4.5 billion because several of Taiwan’s finest tourism assets have been put out of action or rendered inaccessible.

The historic narrow-gauge railroad that links the lowland city of Chiayi with the mountain resort of Alishan will not be fully operational for two years, Taiwan's Chinese-language media has reported. However, the main road to the resort should reopen by Sept. 20.

According to officials in Yushan National Park’s Conservation Department, all of the roads approaching Jade Mountain—Northeast Asia’s highest peak and a finalist in the competition to select the world's new seven natural wonders—are closed due to typhoon damage, and repair schedules have yet to be confirmed. “It might take a while,” they warned.

Rangers have yet to assess the state of the park’s many hiking trails and refuges, the officials said.

The Southern Cross-Island Highway, which runs through the southern part of the national park, has suffered massive damage. It’s one of Taiwan’s most scenic mountain roads and a favorite with independent travelers who rent cars or motorcycles, but park officials said “it may take months [to complete] reconstruction.”

Fortunately a great deal remains intact. The northern half of Taiwan—including the capital, Taipei, and its world-class National Palace Museum—was unscathed. Sun Moon Lake, Taroko National Park and the historic town of Lugang are all open for business as usual.

ROC Tourism Bureau Director-General Lai Seh-jen announced Aug. 17 that, in a bid to limit cancellations, the bureau is circulating a list of unaffected tourist attractions to overseas travel agents.

Tour operators stress that even in southern Taiwan, damage to road and rail networks should not cause too much inconvenience.

"Green Island is in pristine condition because the muddy downflow of rivers doesn’t get there and the island itself has no rivers,” said Eddie Viljoen, director of sales for Green Island Adventures, a Taichung-based company that provides travel packages to several destinations around the ROC, including Green Island, 33 kilometers east of Taitung.

"Water visibility is still at least 25 meters for scuba diving and snorkeling. And there’s an added advantage right now—there are fewer people around than is usual in the summer peak season,” said Viljoen, acknowledging the typhoon’s impact on visitor numbers.

Within days of the typhoon cutting the Kaohsiung-Taitung rail link, daily domestic flights between the two cities—suspended since 2001—were resumed. From Taitung it is a 12-minute flight to Green Island.

Viljoen is not the only person seeing a post-typhoon dip in business.

"The only guest we had between Aug. 7 [the day before the typhoon arrived] and Aug. 18 was a reporter,” said Lai Chi-ming, the co-owner of Haugau Homestay near Meinong, a town 40 kilometers northeast of downtown Kaohsiung that suffered no significant damage.

"For summertime that’s unbelievable,” remarked Lai, who said that 95 percent of his guests are Taiwanese.

"We were fully booked for the weekend of Aug. 15-16, but everyone canceled. Most said it was because of road conditions, although there are no problems between here and the freeway. A few people saw TV reports about Kaohsiung’s water-supply problems and were worried they wouldn’t be able to take a bath,” he explained.

Despite extensive coverage of the disaster in the international media, inbound tourism appears to be holding up better than the domestic market.

"Nobody has canceled from any of our tours to Taiwan because of the typhoon,” said Phil Colley, founder of The Oriental Caravan, a U.K. company that specializes in tours of East Asia. "None of our clients have expressed concerns about the safety of traveling in Taiwan. We’ve had a couple of inquiries about how the damage caused by the typhoon might affect our route and the itinerary.”

"From initial reports it seems most of the areas and facilities covered by our tour have not been seriously affected by the typhoon and so we have not as yet had to change the itinerary,” he said. “Taiwan is pretty new to our portfolio. We led our first tour in March of this year and have one full and one almost-full group for October and November respectively.”

The ROC is not the only country to have seen its tourist trade affected by extreme weather.

"A number of countries around the world face the prospect of being affected by natural phenomena–hurricanes in the Caribbean and southern U.S. states, for instance, or typhoons in Asia. This is an unfortunate fact of life, of which most intelligent travelers will be aware,” said Geoff Saltmarsh, managing director of the Saltmarsh Partnership Ltd., a public relations firm contracted to represent the ROC Tourism Bureau in the United Kingdom.

"Responsible tourism authorities acknowledge the fact within their tourism information to allow potential visitors to make their own decisions. For example, the Taiwan website refers to the possibility of typhoons in the June to August period and advises visitors to monitor weather reports,” he said.

Saying he does not expect any negative long-term impact on Taiwan’s tourism industry as a result of Typhoon Morakot, Saltmarsh added: “A number of U.K. tour operators have told us that their forward bookings for Taiwan are showing an increase from last year.”

The article was originally published here.

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