In December of last year, a South Korean housewife became the year’s 6 millionth foreign national to arrive in Taiwan as a tourist. The number of international tourists hit an all-time high last year as visitors from China and all over the world flocked to check out Taiwan, described by some tourist publications as “Asia’s best-kept secret.”
Not only are people from abroad coming here to see the sights, more foreign nationals are moving to Taiwan, with a recent report from the Central News Agency claiming that as of last year, 648,000 foreign passport holders — excluding citizens of the People’s Republic of China — now reside in Taiwan, an increase that represented a year-on-year growth of over 9 percent.
Speaking last week, President Ma Ying-jeou pledged that his government will strive to improve Taiwan’s “overall travel quality,” with the goal of seeing 10 million foreign arrivals per year until 2016. “Taiwan is relatively young in the global tourism market,” the president said. “Even as we seek quantitative growth, we must also make qualitative improvements in both infrastructure and services.”
Ma noted that there has been significant investment in the local tourism industry since his first term began, with some NT$300 billion spent on upgrading tourism facilities, but of course the president is correct that there is more to be done. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications has singled out creating a better and more comprehensive transportation network as a goal for the near future, and some of these improvements will include better air links between regional city airports which would help Taiwan become a travel hub for the East Asian area.
But there are also less grand improvements that will need to be made if Taiwan is make serious inroads as a tourism destination for foreign visitors. Among the first project that should be undertaken is a major revamp of signs. When foreign tourists visit Western Europe, Australia or the United States, many rent a vehicle and explore. If these visitors read English, for the most part they can find their way around by simply following signs and reading maps. In Taiwan however — even in the capital city Taipei — road signs are not particularly clear. Signs are too small, difficult to understand, ill-placed and could generally benefit from some expert attention. Outside of northern Taiwan there are even fewer English signs and in some places streets don’t have signs at all.
When visitors do make it to various sites of interest, they may also notice that there are frequently few signs giving information on the background and history of the place they’re visiting.
Taiwan has made great improvements over the past decades. Drive along the national freeways and you’ll notice that signs in most areas have been generally standardized into Hanyu Pinyin. Many claim Taipei’s subway system is now quite easy to understand and even the bus system is getting more user-friendly for non-Chinese speakers. But by bumping everything up a notch we can move Taiwan out of the category of “decent” and into “excellent.”
In some cases there will need to be a complete overhaul, but in others all that’s needed is a bit more attention to detail. Too often there remain strangely worded English signs that may lower the overall tourism quality of Taiwan. A sign on a train that says, “In emergency case, hang on chain” is not the end of the world and most will probably grasp its meaning. But it would be so much better if the sign was phrased perfectly, “In case of emergencies, pull on the chain.” A sign in a government office that reads, “No smoking! Offend is to be punish by law!” is likewise not completely illegible, but it speaks to a certain lack of attention to detail that saps quality from Taiwan’s overall “brand.”
While public transportation systems are quite developed in northern Taiwan, international visitors hoping to explore more of this island will likely need to consider personal transport options such as renting a car or scooter. It would be a shame if visitors fail to enjoy the magnificent natural and cultural beauty of Taiwan because they were unable to find their way around due to poor signage.