Business and leisure travel have inarguably been among the activities hardest-hit by COVID-19. The World Trade Organization estimates that global international tourist arrivals declined by 73% in 2020 and 72% in 2021 compared to 2019. While there are encouraging signs of global recovery – such as international arrivals reaching 62% of pre-pandemic levels during the second half of 2021 – the Asia-Pacific region has fallen behind the Americas, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East in reopening for nonessential travel. As a result, Taiwan saw just over 140,000 visitor arrivals in 2021, compared to nearly 12 million in 2019.
Globally and regionally, governments have begun to relax previous policy restrictions, implementing measures such as lifting quarantine requirements, reopening borders, and resuming visa-free travel, which are key for the recovery of cross-border mobility. Taiwan has been one of the slowest markets to relax its border restrictions and quarantine requirements. The Committee welcomes the Taiwan government’s decision in the first quarter of 2022 to gradually move toward returning to normal by announcing a “New Taiwan Model” response strategy, aimed at balancing public health and economic wellbeing by focusing on resuming normal life while maintaining effective containment of serious infections.
Tourism will most likely never return to pre-COVID conditions. Conveniences previously taken for granted (such as visa-free travel) have largely been suspended, and long, arduous conversations between governments and industry will be required to get back on course. At the same time, past recommendations, such as the adoption of standardized tourism contracts, remain timely and worthy of consideration.
As the Taiwan government seeks a fast-track plan toward recovery and industry transformation, we recommend that it engage in closer collaboration and consultation with various sectors of the general tourism industry, address policy needs from the viewpoint of the various relevant authorities, and adopt a business-focused action plan that is clear, consistent, and reflective of post-COVID changes in travel behavior and significant tourism trends. In that spirit, we offer the following suggestions:
Suggestion 1: Announce clear, science-based, and timely strategies for reopening borders and welcoming new business.
During an October 2021 roundtable meeting hosted by the Asia Travel Technology Industry Association (ATTIA), country representatives and experts across Asia agreed that quarantines are a “travel killer,” while vaccines are “travel enablers.” Moreover, general agreement was expressed that traveler confidence requires transparency and predictability regarding travel restrictions.
Further, AmCham’s findings in a recent survey among its members and those of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Taiwan (JCCIT) indicated that over 68% of AmCham companies and 73% of JCCIT firms have been negatively impacted by the inability to obtain business visas. The survey also showed that travel blockage impeded over US$400 million in transactions over a five-month period.
It is imperative for the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) to ensure that safe travel measures are evidence- based and grounded in medical science from a public health standpoint. For all other ministries and agencies, an aggressive approach to help recuperate business loss must be a priority, as competing neighboring countries have moved ahead on economic opportunities as the pandemic evolves into an endemic.
The Committee therefore strongly urges the Tourism Bureau and Ministry of Transportation and Communications to fully support the Taiwan travel and tourism industry, together with top-down cabinet-level coordination by the National Development Council focusing on opening borders and other key cross-ministerial initiatives. We recommend the following:
Ensure that the voices of other government agencies, not just the MOHW and the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), are heard as part of the decision-making process. Although public health concerns always need to be paramount, Taiwan also needs to consider important business-supporting policies, such as resuming visa-waiver programs and removing mandatory quarantines in a safe and pragmatic manner.
Minimize administrative red-tape during the reopening process. With other countries already moving forward to welcome new business, government agencies must understand that losing opportunities is now more damaging than before. Unnecessary administrative red-tape when resuming policies that were suspended during COVID-19 hurts everyone doing business in Taiwan.
Capture new opportunities created by changing lifestyles. New lifestyles and business norms, such as that of digital nomads, require the authorities to take steps beyond simply resuming past policies. Previous policies need to be carefully reviewed to help capture new opportunities.
Focus on an inclusive and sustainable tourism strategy. According to research by Economist Impact, COVID- 19 has caused 71.8% of travelers to view sustainable tourism as more important than before. The same survey showed that 63% of travelers seek ways to meaningfully connect with communities and culture. The appropriate use of technology can make tourism more inclusive and benefit local communities.
Suggestion 2: Modernize labor laws on foreign workers to ease severe travel and tourism industry staffing shortages.
With the COVID-19 pandemic coming gradually under control and countries worldwide easing their travel bans, international travel is expected to rebound. The Committee hopes that Taiwan will also see a surge in demand for inbound and outbound travel. However, the serious workforce shortage facing Taiwan’s tourism industry threatens to limit Taiwan’s prospects for capitalizing on the expected global tourism boom. The Committee respectfully urges the Taiwan government to comprehensively reassess its policy to attract foreign talent and take into account the travel and tourism sectors’ needs, which require a change from the government’s long-standing focus on high-level foreign experts and blue-collar manufacturing workers.
Although the workforce shortage in tourism has roots in Taiwan’s low birth rate and other demographic changes, the situation has been exacerbated by the strong demand for talent in the technology and manufacturing sectors and other higher-income industries. The staffing needs in the tourism industry are mainly for mid-level workers with strong foreign-language skills. Qualified foreign workers and foreign students who graduated in Taiwan potentially can help fill the gap, but the wage structure in the industry and current labor regulations hamper the tourism and hospitality industry’s ability to hire them.
The Committee calls on the government to inject greater precision and flexibility into policies and regulations related to foreign worker qualifications. According to the qualifications and criteria stipulated in Articles 46.1.1-46.1.6 of the Employment Services Act regarding the employment of foreigners, the tourism industry currently is lumped together with the transportation industry in the list of Special Professions or Technical Assignments. Foreign workers also need to receive a minimum monthly wage of NT$47,971, while the salary range of those who have graduated from Taiwanese educational institutions is NT$35,000-NT$47,971 per month. This is far above the tourism and hospitality industry standard in Taiwan. We urge the government to:
Open service-sector jobs in areas where manpower is badly needed to foreign workers and move the tourism industry under the service-sector category. This will require amendments to Article 46 of the Employment Service Act and the Qualifications and Criteria Standards for foreigners undertaking the jobs specified under Article 46.1.1 to 46.1.6 of the Employment Service Act.
Facilitate access to employment in the travel and tourism industry for foreign graduates of Taiwanese educational institutions by reducing the minimum monthly wage requirement from the current NT$35,000-NT$47,971 and loosening the requirement of special skills for the profession.
Suggestion 3: Help the travel and tourism industry prepare for the resumption of outbound travel-product sales.
The sale of outbound travel products has been banned since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020. Although many other countries have opened their inbound and outbound travel markets, Taiwan has not provided a clear indication as to when outbound travel product sales can be resumed.
Critical conversations need to be conducted with the Tourism Bureau in preparation for the resumption – hopefully later this year – of outbound travel products. For example, businesses will need to work with the government to better understand the availability of resources and whether marketing and sales activities can be coordinated in alignment with government goals. Similar issues have been raised in previous White Papers but are even more relevant now. In addition, we suggest adjustments to make relevant consumer protection terms more business-friendly in a post-COVID world, as businesses have endured unimaginable losses during the pandemic.
It is also vital that travel safety measures be grounded in science. As of the time of publishing, more than 86% of Taiwanese citizens had received at least one dose of anti- COVID vaccine, while around 81% had received two doses and over 63% had gotten a booster shot. In view of the global progress in COVID-19 prevention and treatment, the relaxation of border control policies in most countries, and the efforts of many foreign governments to revitalize their economies, it would be reasonable for Taiwan to lift its exceedingly strict ban on the sale of outbound travel products.
For the resumption of outbound travel products, the Committee recommends that the tourism authority provide a clear timeline for the industry to prepare, commit to applying pragmatic consumer protection principles, and communicate with the industry to understand its needs and begin alignment on coordinated marketing strategies.
Suggestion 4: Relax stringent pandemic-related restrictions imposed on cruise ships.
In Taiwan, most daily activities have been allowed to take place as normal during the pandemic due to excellent public compliance with pandemic prevention policies and high vaccination rates. Domestic travel and public transportation, shopping at hypermarkets, dining in restaurants, attendance at concerts and wedding banquets, religious gatherings, and patronage of karaoke establishments, movie theaters, New Year’s Eve fireworks displays and other events with large crowds are allowed to take place without limitations on the number of participants or demands for proof of vaccination. The cruise business stands out as a major exception.
While certain requirements governing cruise companies applying for domestic operation in Taiwan are reasonable and understandable, the following unnecessarily stringent requirements deserve to be lifted after thorough review:
Limiting the number of guests to 600 per voyage. This number represents 20% of capacity for a 100,000- ton cruise ship that can usually accommodate 3,000 passengers. This ceiling is not commercially viable for any cruise company and should be removed. Cruise ships currently operating in different parts of the world are reserving certain numbers of cabins in specific areas of the vessel as isolation rooms for confirmed COVID cases. The EU mandates that 5% of the total capacity of a ship must be used for such purposes, while the U.S. has no official requirement for cruise ships whatsoever.
Requiring ships to return to port immediately, with all crew and guests subject to hotel quarantine, should a positive COVID-19 case occur during a voyage. In addition, current policies requiring cruise companies to pay for all expenses generated under these circumstances send the message that cruise ships are not welcomed by the Taiwan government. We recommend instead that COVID cases disembark at the following port for treatment or to be sent back home while the ship completes its journey, in line with the approach of all other cruise ships currently operating in the world.
In comparison with on-land activities with large crowds, the high standard of health protocols imposed on cruise companies that meet or exceed current requirements such as the U.S. CDC COVID-19 Operations Manual requirements, the EU Healthy Gateway, requirements by the country whose flag the ship is flying, and local health regulations have made cruise ships one of the safest environments in terms of preventing the spread of COVID-19. The Committee therefore urges the government to reevaluate current pandemic-related restrictions imposed on cruise ships.