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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Taiwan looks south for Muslim tourists

Taiwan seeks to boost relations with 16 south and southeast Asian countries after dip in Chinese tourists

From halal fried chicken to hot springs hotels with prayer facilities, Taiwan is adapting its traditional tourist attractions in a bid to woo Muslim visitors as Chinese arrivals dwindle.

Mainland tourist numbers have fallen dramatically as China relations deteriorate, with speculation authorities there are turning off the taps to put pressure on Taiwan's Beijing-sceptic government.

Taiwan is now seeking to boost relations with 16 south and southeast Asian countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand — what it calls its "southbound policy" — and is seeking more visitors from the region.

That has meant a growing number of tourists from Muslim-majority countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. The country welcomed 30 per cent more visitors from southeast Asia in 2017 compared to the previous year.

Taoism is the prevalent religion in Taiwan, with Muslims making up less than two per cent of the population but tourists said they were surprised how welcome they felt.

"I really like the natural scenery in Taiwan and the people are very nice," said Ashma Bunlapho, 40, a Muslim visitor from Thailand on a five-day trip with her husband.

She found halal restaurants using Google Maps, including a shop selling beef noodle — a Taiwanese favourite — and felt free to pray where she chose, taking her mat with her to famous nature spots including Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan.

Malaysian tourist Dean Idris said halal foodss were easily accessible as he visited Taipei with his two young children, taking in the zoo, a night market, and a historic district close to the city's best-known temple.

"I learnt that Taiwan, Taipei especially, is actually Muslim-friendly," he said outside a mosque in the capital, where he had gone to pray.

Thailand, South Korea and Japan are among Asian nations that have been tapping into the Muslim travel market, which has been fuelled by growth in cheap flights and a booming middle class in countries such as Indonesia.

Fried Chicken Master, a small shop not far from Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall — one of its most famous landmarks — has adapted to the trend, selling a halal version of the snack, which is also a Taiwanese favourite.

"We hope to be able to serve tourists, exchange students, or Muslims living in Taiwan. As Taiwanese we are proud of our food," said Louis Tsai, a spokesman for Super Qin Group, which owns the shop.

A trip to one of Taiwan's hot springs resorts is at the top of most tourists' to-do lists, and Gaia Hotel in mountainous Beitou, best-known for its natural pools, provides guest rooms with prayer direction signs and prayer schedules.

Minibars there are alcohol-free and cakes do not include pork-based gelatin. To obtain its halal certification, the hotel kitchen created a separate cooking and dining area.

"Since the number of Chinese tourists has decreased, and southeast Asia is quite a sizeable market with many Muslims, this is an area we have to actively pursue," said Jack Chang, Gaia's operations manager.

On a recent visit to Istanbul, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je met with Turkish politicians who want to fund the building of a third mosque in Taipei, according to the city government.

Taiwan is also running a trial of visa waivers for Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines. It eased visa rules last June for six countries, including Indonesia, India, and Cambodia.

But some doubt whether the growth in Muslim tourism is enough to offset the lost income from the mainland.

Chinese visitor numbers dropped by a fifth last year, and have been falling since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in May 2016.

Beijing still regards self-ruling democratic Taiwan as part of its territory, and relations have become increasingly tense as Mr Tsai refuses to acknowledge it is part of "one China".

Salahuding Ma, secretary general of the Chinese Muslim Association, the largest halal certification body in Taiwan, says it is hard for the new wave of tourists to compete with their Chinese counterparts.

"The Chinese have wealth and spend lavishly," he said. "If you are talking about southeast Asia, which countries can even compare?"

Mr Ma said Taiwan would have greater success if it overcame the language barrier by encouraging students from "target countries" to work in the island's tourism sector.

For Thai visitor Bunlapho, her lack of Chinese and limited English proved an obstacle when trying to find transport to Taroko National Park on Taiwan's east coast, famous for its deep gorges and sweeping cliffs.

"I couldn't figure out how to get there," she lamented.

"Next time. I'll come back."