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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sugar to Attract The Ants: The Government Seeks Foreign Cycling Tourists

Lief Garrett and The Sychophants

The Focus Taiwan News Channel has just published a CNA article detailing the Ministry of Transportation and Communication's optimistic plans to woo "foreigners" to Taiwan for the purpose of bicycle tourism.

"Taipei, May 10 (CNA) Cycling holidays are a new approach through which Taiwan is promoting itself to foreign travelers, government sources said Monday.

Taiwan is known for its high quality bicycle manufacturing, and the Ministry of Transportation and Communication (MOTC) is
using this image in its efforts to attract visitors to explore the country using cyclist-friendly routes and integrated infrastructure, the sources said.

The Tourism Bureau under the MOTC has been working with world renowned Taiwanese bicycle maker Giant
to target cyclists abroad, with Tourism Board brochures available in Giant's 2,000 stores in the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Germany, along with videos showing Taiwan's scenery.

One area of particular focus is eastern Taiwan, where the mountains meet the Pacific Ocean and where
a four-year project from 2009 to 2012 is under way to create a cycling network along the eastern coast, according to a Tourism Bureau press release.

Highways in the region have been improved to make them more cyclist-friendly since the project began, while five cycle routes have already been established and will be further expanded.

The Taiwan Railway Administration is also playing an important role in the government's plan, according to the press release, as cyclists are permitted to take their bikes
on board certain trains, allowing them even more travel options." (By Kay Liu) ENDITEM/J

First, I would like to say I am happy there is some dialogue (...Wait! After some thought I retract this statement as I feel it is more of a monologue...) going on to expand the current cycling infrastructure beyond the current scope. Any inclusion of cycling into the discussion is a positive step. Furthermore, I obviously love cycling in Taiwan and I feel Taiwan has a lot to offer the cycling world beyond being simply a manufacturing hub. Taiwan should be regarded as a testing ground for the world's greatest bicycles. I get tired of so many cyclists fixated on touring Napa Valley or Tuscany; beautiful places and cliche. Taiwan is for some and could be to many more, a cycling paradise-- if we can get it right. This means putting together a comprehensive and integrated network of cycling routes that appeals to a variety of cyclists. It also needs to refrain from falling into the Taiwanese concept of the "Tourist Trap", where all roads lead to a sausage stand and T-Shirt counter (which might pay the local "official" an unofficial operations tax). This idea could be very, very good.

I also find the target to be very interesting. Here, "foreigner" means "caucasian" as all Asians are regarded by Chinese Nationalist ideologues as part of the "Yellow Race"... or in the words of Dr. Sun Yat-sen:
"These alien races do not number more than 10 million, so that, for the most part, the Chinese people are of the Han or Chinese race with common blood, common religion, and common customs-a single, pure race." --Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
I think Japan has a very well developed cycling culture that is in close proximity to Taiwan. The Japanese already have a generally positive sentiment toward Taiwan. The Japanese are also the big spenders when it comes to spending tourist dollars. Europeans may represent a type of validity in the cycling world. Europe has a type of classic charm that ignites the imagination. It is the land of Eddie Merckx, Fausto Coppi, Colnago, Pinarello... the Spring Classics and the Grand Tours. Europeans taking cycling vacations to Taiwan may appear to validate our worth as a great cycling nation... possibly. If it is done right. If potential cycling tourists are consulted. If there is cooperation and coordination. If a plan is taken seriously. If bikes can be safely transported at a reasonable price. If there is a little space left for a feeling of freedom and adventure. It is so crazy... that it just might work.

Still, I have my reservations and I have blogged about them here. Based on the current difficulty in coordinating and executing a cohesive network of bike routes, I think this press release may be a little premature and more political posturing than action.

Taiwan's cycling infrastructure is NOT integrated by any means, though I am aware that the R.O.C. government has a history of taking its interpretive liberties with an unsigned press release or two. From the Taiwan Review article I blogged about on April 10, and the handling of the Dunhua Rd. debacle, it is clear that Taiwan still has a long way to go to make Taiwan appealing internationally as a cycling Mecca.

According to the article above, Taiwan's East Coast is now the prime target of the government's cycling investment. According to a number of friends who have recently returned from tours down the East Coast the ride is becoming a disaster. I was actually encouraged by a few people to ride Hualien to Taidong A.S.A.P. before it becomes unrideable. The growing number of large tour busses and tourism activity directed at Chinese tourists is, I am told, making a once beautiful and serene coastal ride, a stressful disaster. The few pleasant routes along the East Coast are now limited, and the stretch from Iilan to Hualien has become even more dangerous. It is hard for me to suggest these routes to Taiwan neophytes who do not understand Taiwan's unique traffic culture.

The Conductor Who Kicked Me Off

As far as trains go...(ouch! Bad pun) I have had mixed results taking my bike on trains around Taiwan. The number of express trains with room for bicycles is limited and I have found myself waiting for a few hours for a suitable train. If a cyclist can not read Chinese, the information is simply not available to inform them when the next available train with a bicycle car will arrive. For my last trip to Hualien I left Taichung at 5:00pm and arrived in Hualien at 11:00pm for an early morning ride across the island. I spent a lot of time waiting for my "bike train". In Taipei the local trains are great with bikes, but in other places I have been met with confusion and contradiction on bike rules. In Yuan Lin I was told there were no bike trains, then I was told that there were, and then I was told that I couldn't get on, then I was told I could proceed... only to be stopped and told I couldn't take a bike on a train. I finally got on a train. It was insane and by no means convenient.

Now one thing in this article did catch my eye. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications has one resource available to it that could be invaluable to promoting tourism. Railways!

I am not talking about the existing railroads that are in current use, but rather the abandoned agricultural lines of narrow gauge track that the Japanese installed during Taiwan's 50 years as a Japanese colony.

A Sugar Railroad Line (In Use Seasonally)

During Japan's colonization of Taiwan, the Japanese government initially poured an obscene amount of money into Taiwan to build up an infrastructure to help exploit Taiwan's resources for agricultural and forestry production. By 1908, the Japanese administration already had 395km of passenger rail from Keelung to Kaohsiung. Along with the passenger lines the Meiji Sugar Company, alone, laid over 3000km of narrow gauge track to transport sugar from the farmers to local refineries and then out to the major transport hubs. By 1965 Taiwan transferred from an agrarian to an industrial economy and the old agricultural lines were abandoned and many simply lie in disrepair. Many of these old lines and others like them still exist and are now owned by the central government. They create a ready-made network separate from other vehicular traffic. Many of these railways reach out to some of the distant, rural communities tourists hope to see, rather than another shopping mall-food court or T-shirt stand. This could at least be part of a solution. The drawback is that the railway infrastructure is already in place and may not require the type of meaty government contract that makes the [owners of construction companies-gravel-pits-entertainment venues-alcohol distribution and other services] a lot of money when rigging negotiating a bid. I hate to be so cynical, but experience and research overrules. There was a valiant attempt at transforming a train tunnel from Fulong to Jiao Xi, near Iilan. I have ridden this route before and it is a fantastic short cut, but incredibly dangerous. It is dark and many riders simply stop in the middle of the narrow path. There are often children weaving and stopping without warning. I was terribly afraid I would hurt a small child in there.

The Fulong Bike Tunnel

The potential is here, but I fear the execution will be flawed, premature and the funds better spent elsewhere to promote cycling. I hate having such little confidence in the central government's ability, but thus far, under the current administration I have not seen much in the way of leadership and accountability... nor have I seen much in the way of transparent government disclosure of economic projects that are touted to benefit Taiwan. For many years the Taiwan government has explored... "creative" ways to attract foreign press to the island in the hope of securing favorable stories to boost foreign tourism. Many of these efforts are thought to have ended badly. Maybe I worry too much?