Saturday, May 19, 2012

National park plans to triple-charge foreign hikers

Paiyun Lodge (aka Paiyun Shanzhuang 排雲山莊), which is where most of those ascending Mount Jade (aka Yushan, 玉山 , Taiwan's highest mountain - pictured here) spend the night before hiking up to the summit, has been under renovation since last year. Around the start of this year, members of Taiwan's hiking fraternity alerted me to an announcement on Yushan National Park's website, in Chinese only, that when the lodge reopens sometime in the summer, non-Taiwanese will have to pay NT$700 to stay there, while local citizens will be charged NT$220. In other words, as the policy stands, foreigners will pay more than three times what ROC citizens will pay.

Dismayed that such a policy would be considered just when Taiwan's government is trying to boost international arrivals - and concerned that it might set a precedent which would lead to museums, national forest recreation areas and other attractions charging foreigners more - I asked my contact in the national park's headquarters for an explanation. Segments below in blue are responses from government officials; those in purple are emails/letters from my side. 

The key part of her reply, which came on February 10, was:

[The] section which is in charge of park entry application explains that we pay more to build an English environment for foreigners, such as hire English specialist staff, built English edition website, bilingual guide sign or instruction…etc.

She suggested I send an email to the director of the national park. I did so on February 17: 

It was suggested to me that I write to you because I have expressed concern about the plan to charge ROC citizens NT$220, but foreigners NT$700, to stay in Paiyun Shanzhuang once the rebuilding has been completed.

I have been told by one member of your staff that the difference in pricing is to fund "bilingual services" and "a bilingual environment." I and several other people are very curious about this.

First, I would like to point out that - to the best of my knowledge - nowhere else in Taiwan are foreigners expected to pay more than locals.

I would like to know exactly what services foreign visitors can expect, and how those services differ from or improve upon what has been available in recent years. In my experience, the signs and information boards on the approach to Yushan are pretty good already. However, I admit that few of the national park workers one meets around Paiyun Shanzhuang speak any English.

Also, I would like to know if all non-ROC citizens will be expected to pay the higher fee, even if they are ethnic Chinese from Malaysia or Singapore, or from mainland China.

Furthermore, I would be most interested to know where this proposal originated. Was it suggested by someone within Yushan National Park? Or did it come from the Ministry of the Interior or elsewhere? Also, is the policy being coordinated with government bodies such as the Research, Development & Evaluation Commission (RDEC), which in recent years has been endeavoring to build a bilingual environment? What does the Tourism Bureau think about the policy?

I would be most grateful for detailed answers to these questions, and I truly appreciate your taking the time to explain this policy to me.

The reply came very quickly:

Your mail sent on February/17/2012, titled “Paiyun Shanzhuang / different prices for foreigners and ROC citizens” has been received and processed by our Park Entry Service Unit and the response is as follows:

We sincerely appreciate that you wrote us and give us an opportunity to clarify your or other potential foreign visitors’ doubts.

First of all, the change of the standard of fee is based on the 10th article of Charges and Fees Act “…Administrative fees: shall be set under the direct cost of goods and materials, wages and salaries, and other costs, and by taking indirect cost into consideration…” and the 11th article of Charges and Fees Act “The executive authorities in charge of the concerned matters shall review the standards of charges and fees on a routine…The forgoing routine review shall be made at least once every three years.” The fee of Paiyun Lodge includes the cost of construction, management, and maintenance, etc. Local visitors staying overnight at Paiyun Lodge will be charged NT$220 per night. As for foreign visitors, the fee of NT$700 contains extra cost of management for the service of bilingual staff, the maintenance of website in foreign languages, English signs, and brochures in foreign languages, etc.

The standard of charge is differed from objective condition, nationality, instead of visitors’ language skills. Thus, visitors from Singapore, Malaysia, and China are also charged NT$700.

As for your first question, there are indeed scenic spots and national parks having different standard of fee according to nationality or citizenship, such as the historic spots and museum in Tainan City, Aconcagua Park, Kinabalu Park, Taj Mahal, etc. As your reference, this is the standard of permission fee for Aconcagua Park:

I wasn't nearly satisfied by the park's response. Apart from it failing to answer some of my questions (I was especially curious if the Tourism Bureau had been consulted, and if the park had sought bilingual-project funds from the RDEC), the statement about Tainan City's historic spots and museums is simply wrong. People who live in Tainan (ROC citizens show the address on their ID cards; foreigners show the address on their alien resident certificates) can enter places like Fort Zeelandia for free. Those who live outside the city limits - be they Taiwanese or foreign - have to pay, and they pay the same regardless of national origin. Also, the Aconcagua Park website clearly states that foreigners living in Argentina pay no more than Argentine citizens.

Accordingly, Robert Kelly (principal author of the Lonely Planet Taiwan guide) and I sent the following letter to the director-general of the Tourism Bureau on March 12.

In recent weeks, two changes in the hiking policies of Yushan National Park have come to our attention. As we are authors of two of the most popular English-language guidebooks on Taiwan (Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide and Lonely Planet Taiwan), and are well connected with the foreign hiking community within Taiwan, we hope your department will be interested in hearing our views on this matter.

Our first concern regards Paiyun Shanzhuang currently under reconstruction. When the cabin reopens later this year, the national park plans to charge ROC citizens NT$220 for an overnight stay; and NT$700 for foreign visitors. We have been told by the national park that the much higher foreign fees will go toward recouping the costs of funding “bilingual staff, maintaining the park's website in foreign languages, erecting English signs, and making brochures available in foreign languages.

All foreign visitors appreciate the efforts being made by Taiwan's national parks and other government agencies to deploy English-speaking staff, improve signs and make other sources of information clearer. Long-term residents such as ourselves also recognize that Taiwan has made impressive progress over the past decade.

But we are both surprised and dismayed by Yushan National Park's decision to charge foreign guests higher fees, believing it sends a negative signal to those thinking of visiting Taiwan. If followed by other agencies and site managers (such as those at forest recreation areas, museums, historical sites, etc), it could make Taiwan a significantly more expensive destination to visit; and as a result significantly less attractive as a destination.

Within Asia, Taiwan is already considered a fairly expensive place to travel. Compared to Thailand, Vietnam and China, for example, is can be two to four times more expensive for food and lodging. The lack of high user and admission fees, however, is one way that Taiwan balances out the expenses, allowing a visitor to Taiwan to spend not much more than one to China, for example, when all expenses are added up. If Taiwanese sites begin to charge high admission rates this will surely be a strike against them in the eyes of many travelers.

We also think the new policy has not been thought through carefully if in fact it is a fund-generating measure. Yushan National Park receives hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, many of who are foreign travelers. Yet not a single visitor (with the exception of hikers) is asked to pay even an entrance fee, though they may in fact benefit from bilingual staff, signposts, and brochures.
One argument put forth by the national park is that at many attractions around the world foreign visitors are required to pay more than locals. This is certainly true but in our experience it is almost always in countries where local salaries are significantly lower than the visitors'. For example, in China or Thailand, wages are far below Western levels and so it is not entirely unfair that foreign visitors are asked to pay more. However, that said, in recent years among the biggest complaints now from visitors to China is the discrepancy between local and visitor entrance fees and the huge rise in the latter. For Taiwan to replicate unpopular policies elsewhere does not seem wise to us.

Furthermore, Taiwan is not a third world country: GDP per capita is now almost US$20,000 according to the latest GIO reports. This is higher than the GDP per capita of many of the countries from which visitors to Taiwan originate (such as Malaysia) and is quite comparable to South Korea, and not so far below Japan. The higher charge of NT$700 could also be quite prohibitive for the average young traveler or backpacker from a Western country; the type of tourist, we should add, that will be most interested in climbing Yushan in the first place.

In short, Taiwan is not a poor country and this kind of unequal treatment of guests is counter-productive to the image the Tourism Bureau wishes to spread: i.e., that Taiwan is a safe, prosperous, advanced nation, steeped in tradition but enjoying all the advantages of the modern world. In our opinion, if the national park is in need of higher revenues then it would be much preferable to see entrance fees charged to all visitors.

Our second concern regards the high mountain hiking permit system. While Taroko National Park has long forbidden foreign hikers from climbing its mountains without a Taiwanese guide (a policy that is at odds with every other national park) it has come to our attention that Yushan National Park is also about to engage in selective rules for foreign hikers: in this case refusing to issue permits for a one-day ascent of Yushan.

Again, we believe this sends the wrong message to the world. Foreign hikers within Taiwan are already complaining to us that they believe the “no one-day permit policy” is simply a way of forcing them to stay at Paiyuan Shanzhuang (and hence be charged more). While we don't believe this is the case, we do agree that the impression such a policy gives is not positive.

A “no one-day policy” will also reduce the number of foreign hikers coming to Taiwan, especially the very experienced. While Taiwan's mountains are very beautiful they are not a great challenge for skilled hikers. However, such people do enjoy the challenge of a one-day ascent. We know of several who live within the Asian region that make regular trips to Taiwan. If national park policy begins to alienate such people, Taiwan's mountain reputation could take a large hit.

Thank you for taking the time to read our concerns. We would be most interested in hearing your views.

On April 16 we received a short message in Chinese from the Tourism Bureau, stating that they had received our letter, had assigned case number 10100106051 to it, and forwarded a copy to Yushan National Park.

The park's most recent response, dated April 18, reads:

This is a reply to official document No. 10100106051 of Tourism Bureau submitted on April 16, 2012.

The “fee-charging standards for the usage of Paiyun Lodge of Yushan National Park” is based on user pays principle and the differences on costs and taxes.
  1. Local visitors: NT$220 per person per night
  2. Foreign visitors: NT$700 per person per night
  3. The fee-charging standard for local visitors is applicable to foreign visitors who hold ROC (Taiwan) Resident Certificate.
According to “National Park Law,” national parks are established for protecting specific natural scenery, wildlife, and historic sites and also for the recreation, education, and research purposes. Mt. Jade main peak and west peak is within the ecological protected area and scenic area in Yushan National Park. For satisfying the aims of ecological conservation, recreational quality, and hiking safety, our park has set up daily maximum capacity for years.

Presently, the maximum capacity of single day ascent to Mt. Jade main/west peak has been increased from 20 people per day to 40 people per day due to the reconstruction of Paiyun Lodge. For single day ascent application, our park strictly inspects the fitness and experiences of applicants and the training purpose(s). It is suggested that foreign visitors hike this route with a Taiwanese guide and be careful on hiking safety.

We appreciate your advices to our park.

Robert and I then waited a while, hoping the Tourism Bureau would chip in with comments of their own. Hearing nothing, on May 9 I sent an email, the core being:

We have now received a response from Yushan National Park which has addressed some but not all of our concerns.
We are still hoping for an official response from the Tourism Bureau about the issues raised in our letter. If the bureau plans to make a response, we should be most grateful if we could receive it by May 18, as we are discussing these issues with a number of newspaper and magazine editors (in Taiwan and overseas) with a view to writing about the new pricing policy, and would very much like to know the bureau's stance.

Possibly because of the deadline I included, on May 16 we received the following letter from David W. Hsieh, the new director-general of the Tourism Bureau:

Thank you for your email concerning the pricing policy of Paiyun Lodge in Yushan National Park. From the standpoint of international promotion, we think that it is not proper to charge foreigners differently from local citizens for the use of tourist facilities. As we mentioned before, national parks are outside the jurisdiction of the Tourism Bureau; we will, however, make strong suggestions about this matter to the Ministry of the Interior's Construction and Planning Agency, which is the agency in charge of the parks.

We do appreciate your efforts to promote Taiwan, and thank you again for your concern.

At the time of writing this blog post, the triple-pricing announcement is still on the national park's website. It'll be very interesting to see how this pans out. If the park sticks to its guns, it'll upset a good number of foreign visitors while raising very little extra revenue. Snow Mountain is looking even more attractive than before!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A foodie talks about Tainan cuisine

Among Taiwanese, Tainan is famed for its xiaochi (小吃), literally 'small eats' - inexpensive snacks made and sold by roadside vendors or in night markets. While researching an upcoming article about the future direction of tourism in Tainan, I interviewed by email Shanti Christensen, a Californian food blogger living in Beijing. This is what she had to say:

When did you visit Tainan and how long did you stay?

Every Christmas holiday, my husband takes me to visit his grandma in Taipei. At Christmas 2011, we took the high-speed train south to Tainan. We stayed for three days, two nights. I wanted to visit other parts of Taiwan and Tainan is known for its street food stalls.

As a foodie, what do you think about Tainan's foods? Which stood out?

As a food lover, after one day I wished I had discovered Tainan sooner. I had planned to be in Tainan one night and two days, but extended my stay a day longer in order to taste at more food stalls. Fortunately, a friend’s father who grew up in Tainan knew stalls that had been around for five decades and showed me more than my stomach could fit. Chinese who fled China in 1949 arrived in Taiwan and some opened up shops featuring family recipes.

My two favorites were ròu zào fàn (肉燥饭) and shrimp meat rolls (xiārén ròu yuán, 蝦仁肉圓). The first [pictured top left] is cubes of soy-sauce braised pork neck and a pinch of sweet-pickled ginger served over steamed rice. I loved this dish because it is simple and delicious. My favorite dish in Chinese cuisine is red-braised pork belly (hong shao rou, 红烧肉) served with steamed rice. This dish is essentially the same with the fresh bite of pickled ginger. The second [pictured below right] is glutinous rice sculpted around shrimp head meat then steamed. Glutinous rice is fun for the mouth. Its chewy texture with shrimp roe and pork juices steeped into the mound of flavorful goodness makes me wish the glutinous rice denseness didn’t rob space from my stomach’s capacity to eat more.

Would you recommend Tainan to foodies who don't speak Chinese? Why or why not?

While speaking Chinese and especially reading is very helpful, grazing the food stalls in Tainan doesn’t need more than an observant eye and dash of adventure. Peeping over shoulders onto tables of other diners is better than any picture menu. Find a server then point and pick.

What could be done to make Tainan more attractive and accessible to non-Chinese foodies?

I believe to be a foodie, one possesses an element of tasting the unknown. Good food is a common language. If it smells good, looks good, and has a line out the door, chances are it’s the place to be. Following guides scratches the surface. Walking and grazing with a big appetite will open more doors than non-Chinese foodies have time for.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Xiaolin Pingpu Culture Museum

A few days ago, we visited the recently opened Xiaolin Pingpu Culture Museum (小林平埔族群文物館). It's a replacement for a small museum maintained inside Xiaolin Elementary School until landslides triggered by 2009's Typhoon Morakot obliterated the school and almost the entire village of Xiaolin. The original museum was the first devoted to Taiwan's lowland aborigines, Xiaolin being an outpost of the Siraya people. This ethnic group isn't recognized by Taiwan's government, but thanks to Xiaolin's remote location, tribe members there were able to preserve much of the culture.

The new two-floor museum (main hall pictured above) displays a great many traditional tools and implements, most of which are made of bamboo. There's almost no English. Those who can't read Chinese will be able to recognize the tiny banjos and equipment used for making mud bricks (pictured left), but they're unlikely to know which of the other items is in fact a mousetrap, and which was used for carrying water.

One display notes that in 1945, just before the end of Japanese colonial rule, 91 lowland aboriginal families were living here; 34 of them were headed by men surnamed Pan (潘), 30 by men surnamed Liu (劉) and seven by men called Xu (徐). Domination of a village by one or two surnames isn't unique to lowland aboriginal villages; it's also common in Han Chinese areas. There are also many poignant photos of old Xiaolin (such as the one on the right). You can't help but wonder how many of the people pictured are still alive.

The museum's address is 50 Wuli Road, Jiasian District, Kaohsiung City (甲仙區五里路50號), but an easy way to find it is to follow Highway 21 northwards from Jiaxian, and look for kilometer marker 223. The museum, plus several homes built to house survivors of Typhoon Morakot, are beside the road, on the right-hand side. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9am to midday and 1pm to 5pm.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Know your food: Wild taro

These wild taros, harvested from nearby hillsides, were drying in the sunshine in the backstreets of Sandimen (三地門), an aboriginal town in Pingtung County famous for its glass-bead art. Wild taros are about half the size of cultivated varieties.