As part of the Tsai Ing-wen administration’s people-centered agenda, Taiwan has been actively promoting the New Southbound Policy. The policy aims, not only to expand Taiwan’s international space, but also to foster regional connectivity and people-to-people contacts. Since the Tsai administration took power in May 2016, Chinese tourism has fallen by over 36 percent. However, during the same period, the number of tourists from Japan rose 17 percent, and the number of tourists coming from South Korea increased by 30 percent. One of the significant measures taken to boost tourism has been to facilitate and attract travelers from ASEAN countries, especially the emerging middle classes, in order to build connections with South and Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
Reinventing New Southbound Tourism Project
In order to promote the New Southbound Policy in tourism, Taiwan adopted new initiatives to improve multi-sectoral capacities. On the public front, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry has eased visa requirements and increased visa exemptions for selected Southeast Asian countries. The visa-free process was already in place for Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand. The project will extend to Indonesia (2017), India and the Philippines (2018), as well as Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia (2019). This initiative has received positive responses from neighboring countries, benefiting ASEAN citizens most.
Additionally, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan (EY) is encouraging local authorities to host travel fairs in Southeast Asia. To attract potential visitors to Taiwan, these exhibitions display local attractions in the categories of culture, arts and crafts, lifestyle, and cuisine, and strengthen Taiwan’s image in the region. In line with tourism promotion, the government is also providing a training program for Southeast Asian immigrants (新住民) in selected localities. By encouraging them to use their linguistic and cultural talents, the new immigrants may act as important conduits for developing tourism and help build a tourism-friendly environment.
Going forward, the role of the private sector, or Taishang (Taiwanese businesses, 臺商), is also important. They are encouraged to promote Taiwan as an annual travel destination. To this end, the government is offering charter flights and travel rewards as incentives to seek buy-in from businesses. Tapping further into Southeast Asian market, more multilingual information will be provided on tourist attractions in Taiwan. Halal food and Muslim-friendly restaurants and hotels are also proliferating, showing an expanded social understanding of Southeast Asia and strengthening linkages within the region and to the Muslim culture.
Increasing ASEAN Touristm, Enhancing People-to-People Contacts
Admittedly, Taiwan diversified its tourism market to counter plummeting Chinese tourist numbers. According to Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, there was a prominent increase in Southeast Asian visitors between January and November of 2016. Tourists coming from Cambodia increased 85.4 percent to 3,111 visitors, followed by Thailand with 52.1 percent and 164,201 visitors, Brunei with a 51.2 percent increase and 3,795 visitors, and India with 38.2 percent and 30,986 visitors. The total number of travelers to Taiwan in the same period increased by 2.5 percent and tourist arrivals from Southeast Asia grew 14.2 percent that year.
While the number of travelers arriving in Taiwan has grown considerably, it is in part because the base is low and therefore it is necessary to continue enticing Southeast Asian tourists while carefully examining the individual figures. It is important to note that the implementation of the New Southbound Policy in tourism is not entirely a response to the short-term impact of declining numbers of Chinese tourists. Instead, it is part of a long-term strategy to reinvigorate Taiwan’s domestic tourism industry and to develop a friendlier environment for a diversity of foreign visitors.
Governmental sectors are keen to revise immigration regulations and improve migrant laborers’ welfare. On October 21, 2016, the Legislative Yuan (LY) introduced the amendments to Employment Service Act and Nationality Law, eliminating unreasonable brokerage fees. The Ministry of Education also provides an empowerment program for Southeast Asian immigrants, and listed Southeast Asian languages as required courses in Taiwanese schools from 2018 onward. Evidently, cross-sectoral collaboration is necessary for Taiwan to align more closely with the regional community. Communication with Southeast Asian countries and societies is expected to occur, in order to foster consensus on future cooperation, and this will simultaneously promote Taiwan’s international engagement.
A Successful New Southbound Policy, A Better Taiwan
On December 14, 2016, the Executive Yuan unveiled the New Southbound Policy Work Plan. Measures detailed in the work plan to attract more visitors from Southeast Asia are: easing visa barriers; diversifying the tourism market; improving the environment for tourism; and highlighting the relationship indigenous peoples in Taiwan and Austronesians to establish a historical and cultural link to Southeast Asian ethnic groups.
To further illustrate, the Executive Yuan is utilizing a network of stakeholders that includes Taiwan businesses, students from Southeast Asia, and local governments and civilian associations, to jointly promote Taiwan’s diverse culture and soft power.
The government also seeks to set up a tourism office in Southeast Asia—for example, in Bangkok, Thailand. The office could serve as a platform for promoting travel to Taiwan. Taiwan hopes to attract more than 2.2 million tourists from Southeast Asia by 2019. The number may seem small, as it is equivalent to only 54 percent of the number of tourists who came from China in 2015. However, successfully meeting the benchmark would demonstrate the social and political commitment to domestic economic reform. It is a policy that aims to build a better Taiwan.
The New Southbound Policy’s emphasis is on a people-centric agenda. The goal is to serve the mutual benefits of Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries. By cementing mutual cooperation and developing relations with regional counterparts, Taiwan is reinventing itself, in order to be incorporated into the regional community. In other words, the New Southbound Policy can be be seen as a strategic trigger to enhance Taiwan’s global influence and to promote Taiwan’s national development. It is the locus of Taiwan’s effort to enhance better engagement with neighboring countries, and to sustain the momentum of ongoing regional integration.
The main point: Taiwan’s strategy to diversify its tourism sector and attract more visitors from Southeast Asia is part of a larger foreign policy plan called the New Southbound Policy which seeks to increase Taiwan’s regional integration.