'Made in Taiwan' The undiscovered gem
Taiwan was best known for its manufacturing in the 1970s and 80s, but today it’s a different story. Here, travel journalist Barbara Walshe investigates how the country is making it as a tourist destination.
The ‘Made in Taiwan’ tag came attached to almost everything we bought in the 1970s and 80s, but who knows what Taiwan is made of these days? If anything, people are aware of the country’s political struggle with mainland China, their fight to be seen as an independent, sovereign state. Others know it’s no longer the manufacturing hub of old, with China taking over when they turned their focus to technology-intensive industries in the 1990s. But a tourist destination? Few people know Taiwan as that.
After being skipped over by the mainstream travel media for years, high-end tourists, career-breakers and gap-year students have hardly hovered their fingers over Taiwan on the map since. Despite the short (three-hour) journey time from Bangkok, travellers still chose well-worn treks through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam instead, or headed straight for mainland China. Now, they’re beginning to realise what they’ve missed.
At 36,000 square kilometres, less than twice the size of Wales, Taiwan is finally gaining recognition as a bustling, beautiful country, full of cosmopolitan cities, culture and undiscovered landscapes. But it’s also a country full of contrast and complexities, which is mainly down to its history. Over the past 500 years, Taiwan has been colonised four times – first by the Dutch, then the Spanish, later the Chinese and finally the Japanese who vacated in 1945. The result is a jumble of traditions and cultures that make it a truly unique place.
Take Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city in the north, home to three million of the country’s 23m population. The city’s oldest temple, Longshan, stands just a short distance from Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building at 1,667ft, crammed full of designer boutiques and restaurants. At any one time, as many people can be seen thronging Taipei 101’s shops as they can cramming into Longshan, where they light incense sticks, worship 108 Buddhas and pray for good marriage, good business, good fortune and general good luck.
It’s a similar situation at the National Palace Museum, Taiwan’s most famous tourist destination, with two million visitors a year. A short drive out of the city, on highways as vast and palm-tree lined as those in Miami, thousands of exquisite national treasures are on show here – just none that focus on Taiwan. In 1949, the Chinese Nationalist government shipped thousands of artefacts to Taiwan just weeks before the country fell to Communism. The museum, set up in 1965, is now an unparalleled and priceless collection of 655,000 pieces of art that charts Chinese civilisation and dates back 5,000 years.
A trip down south on the 90-minute bullet train is a speedy way to take in more of the country, including Tainan, its oldest city, and Kaohsiung, its second largest, where foot massages are a speciality. But it’s the two-hour road journey from west to east that highlights Taiwan’s very own national treasures. While the west is famous for its lush, green hills, the east is renowned for its other extremes - mountainous, rocky terrain and a coastline ravaged by typhoons that strike each year between July and October.
Nowhere epitomises this landscape better than Taroko Gorge, a monstrous canyon where fierce typhoons have pulled down concrete bridges several times over and cause severe landslides. Though this has often left the homes of Taiwan’s mountain people devastated, it has also created a magical setting where waterfalls trickle from sky-scraper mountains and gorges of marble are twisted into different colours and shapes.
Add to this beaches like those at Kenting National Park, with sand dunes and sea stretching for miles, and Taiwan’s 258 peaks which, as well as being a climber’s paradise, make it one of the most mountainous places on earth, and you begin to wonder how it’s gone under the radar for so long.
Bar tourism, Taiwan has been savvy in other areas though. Taking advantage of the manufacturing boom after World War II, its economic rise became known as ‘The Taiwan Miracle’. There is huge emphasis placed on education, resulting in a thoroughly skilled workforce and a strong economy, with a standard of living not radically different from the UK. Alongside that, English is widely spoken, equal opportunities are promoted amongst men and women at work and home, and divorce is not uncommon.
Now that they’re turning their attention to tourism, Taiwan will doubtless achieve stellar success in time. Which brings with it upsides and downsides. On the upside, it benefits the country, boosts the economy, gives the Taiwanese a greater sense of independence and finally puts their country on the map.
The downside? Well, as a relatively undiscovered destination, it’s a gem that will inevitably (and deservedly) become part of the mainstream tourism trail. Until that happens though, a delightful surprise is in store for anyone making the trip out there.