Storm chasers track down Taiwan’s winds

This article first appeared in the October 26, 2007 issue of Taiwan Journal.

As part of its efforts to attract foreign tourists to Taiwan, the Tourism Bureau has been working hard to promote the country’s scenic, cultural and architectural landmarks, such as the Sun Moon Lake, the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101.

However, when Stuart Robinson made a brief visit to Taiwan earlier this month, none of these attractions were on his itinerary. Computer engineering is the Briton’s profession, but tornadoes, hurricanes, twisters and typhoons are his passion.

The 40-year-old, who lives in England’s East Midlands, has chased storms in the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. He timed his visit to Taiwan — the furthest he has ever traveled to experience extreme weather — to coincide with the arrival of Typhoon Krosa.

Typhoon Krosa, which lashed Taiwan during the weekend of October 6-7, was responsible for at least nine deaths, with winds and torrential rains destroying more than US$117 million worth of crops and agricultural facilities.

“Watching this storm grow from my office back in England, I saw that the forecast tracked Krosa over Taiwan. I knew this storm was chaseable and that I had to be there!” Robinson said in an e-mail interview October 15.

Robinson then contacted Roger Hill, a weather enthusiast from Denver in the US state of Colorado. The two met up at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, where they hired a car. After booking a hotel room equipped with Internet access, which is important for getting the latest weather updates, the duo set about planning their intercept strategy. “The forecast track of the storm was across the northeast tip of the island. Landfall would be late afternoon the next day,” Robinson said.

For the British storm chaser, Taiwan’s seeming lack of preparation as Krosa closed in was astounding. With the typhoon due to slam into the island in less than 24 hours, “people were carrying on with normal life,” he said. “In the Gulf of Mexico, there would be a mass evacuation, and premises would be boarded up to protect them against the wind. Here in Taiwan, there was none of this.”

At dawn the next day, “it was totally overcast with a light rain and gusty winds,” Robinson said. “I knew this was just the beginning of things.” Robinson and Hill rechecked Krosa’s forecast track and then drove to the northeast coast.

When they arrived, the sea was already very turbulent, with six-meter-high waves crashing onto the rocks, sending up huge towers of water. The rain was starting to fall in earnest, with small streams and rivers filling up. Already the winds were up to gale force.

The two men looked for buildings that could protect them and their car when the typhoon hit, but found few suitable structures in the small fishing communities that dot the coast. “Road tunnels would have been our ultimate escape location” if conditions became too dangerous, Robinson said.

Tunnels afford protection, but landslides at both ends may trap people inside. According to a posting on an online forum often used by Robinson and other storm chasers, one foreign typhoon enthusiast got stuck in a tunnel near Hualien for three days during 2005’s Typhoon Haitang.

Robinson had another problem to deal with: The satellite tracking equipment he uses to chase storms in North America does not work in Taiwan. “The footprint for the satellite covers the United States only, so I knew it wouldn’t work in Taiwan. I didn’t have time to see if there was an alternative product available.”

Lacking up-to-the-minute radar and satellite images delivered to their car by high-speed wireless Internet, the two men had to go back to basics. “We decided to track it visually, measuring wind speeds and temperature. It tested Roger’s and my years of storm-chasing skills to the max!”

Early in the afternoon, they felt their first typhoon-strength gust. “This rocked the car and showered us with bits of soil and sand,” Robinson said. “We had parked behind a small concrete building to protect the car. With each gust the wind got stronger. The roads by now were deserted and visibility was reduced to about 300 meters as the air filled with rain that was being blown horizontally. We were totally on our own.”

“However, the storm was not behaving itself,” recalled Robinson. “The winds were not changing direction and the pressure was not falling as quickly as it should have. It dawned on us that we were too far north. The storm had in fact changed direction and instead of heading directly toward us, was heading south of us. We still had time to relocate, and elected to try and push down to find the eye.”

“Driving the car along that coast road at the height of the typhoon were some of the most nerve-racking weather moments I’ve ever had,” Robinson said. “Conditions were dreadful. Even with the wipers on full I could only just keep the windscreen free of rain. The wind would rock the car and forward speed was only about 30 kilometers per hour. After a few kilometers we realized that we weren’t going to be able to make it into the eye. I pulled the car up behind a dirt embankment, and we got ready for what would be a harrowing few hours.”

“At this point we were dejected,” Robinson said. “To come all this way and miss the eye by just a few miles was very hard to take. We were soaked though, cold and hungry. Moreover, we would have to suffer the very worst and most intense winds that surrounded the eye. Getting into the eye would have at least given us a chance to escape the winds.”

Then Krosa surprised the two storm chasers again. “The winds decreased instead of increasing, and we noticed that the pressure was not falling as normal, but was increasing,” Robinson said. “We both thought that we’d missed the eye completely and it was moving away from us over land. We sat there for two hours until it was safe to drive again. It was getting dark so we decided to return to Taipei.”

Arriving in Taipei, the men were surprised to find businesses open. “We got a room and started to look at the storm over the Internet. What we saw shocked us both,” Robinson recalled.

After approaching the spot where the storm chasers had been waiting, Krosa had suddenly turned south and back out to the sea. In the end it did a complete loop over the ocean before making landfall, by which time it was significantly weaker.

“Taiwan dodged a bullet” is how Robinson described this fortuitous turn of events. “At dawn the next day we drove back out to the coast. We were relieved to see that the small fishing communities were largely unscathed. Many trees were down but there wasn’t much evidence of building damage.”

“I feel dejected that I missed the eye,” concluded Robinson. “But that’s the weather!”

Robinson and Hill were not the only foreign storm chasers who rushed to Taiwan to catch Typhoon Krosa. According to Robinson, one came from Australia. Another, a Briton working in China, flew in from Shanghai.

The latter uses the pseudonym “Typhoon Hunter,” and posted several comments and photos on the UK Weatherworld forum. “Taiwanese infrastructure held up brilliantly as usual,” he wrote, noting also that he saw no gas stations closing or running dry, no panic buying and no looting. “This was my fifth typhoon in Taiwan, and this place is definitely my favorite place to intercept.”

The Graveyard

My friend and fellow writer John Grant Ross has called Taiwan “a graveyard of English-language publications.” I’m in my 30th year on this island, and in that time I’ve seen a good few newspapers, magazines and websites rise and fall.

I cut my teeth writing for The China Post, a daily newspaper that launched in Taipei in 1952. It ceased printing in 2017, but continues as an online publication. Taiwan News, where I worked as a copyeditor at the turn of the century, is also web-only (and seems to be far more successful, in terms of reader numbers, than The China Post).

Fountain, a biannual magazine put out by a government-backed cultural foundation, was a beautiful thing to hold and behold. For its fifth issue, I wrote big chunks of a special report looking forward to the 2009 World Games in Kaohsiung. (This led to me writing about the event for other publications). A highlight of the assignment was getting to meet and interview Chi Cheng, a legendary track athlete and, in person, a gregarious and down-to-earth individual.

It’s sad but unsurprising that English-language publications struggle in Taiwan. In Hong Kong and Singapore, where far more people are likely to read something in English, the situation is hardly better…

Back to Black

The challenge came over a mug of coffee. If I was serious about reducing my environmental impact, a friend teased, I should be putting soy milk, not cow’s milk, in my drink.

Back in February 2016, EcoWatch.com told its readers that cow’s milk represents “60 to 70 percent of the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee with a few tablespoons of milk.” For a latte, the article said, “it’s more like 80 or 90 percent.”

My response to my friend ran to two words: “Food miles.” Most of the soy consumed in Taiwan is grown on the other side of the Pacific, I pointed out, whereas almost all of the cow’s milk sold in fluid form in Taiwan’s supermarkets comes from local dairy herds.

“But what do those cows eat, and where does it come from?” he asked.

We both knew the answer. Dairy cows don’t, as some people imagine, subsist on grass. Instead, the 20 to 25kg of food each animal consumes per day comprises roughly equal quantities of forage (grass, hay and silage) and grains (usually corn and soy). Food-processing by-products like cottonseeds, citrus pulp, almond hulls and soy hulls are often added, as are spent grains from breweries.

Just how much of the diet of Taiwanese cattle is imported may surprise you…

To read my April 21, 2021 Environmental Impact Assessment column in full, go here.

The Canals of Mars? Troy Parfitt and Jordan Peterson

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was erroneously believed that there were “canals” on the planet Mars. These were a network of long straight lines… observed by astronomers using early low-resolution telescopes without photography… Around the turn of the century there was even speculation that they were engineering works, irrigation canals constructed by a civilization of intelligent aliens indigenous to Mars.

I’ve known Troy Parfitt for several years. I edited two of his books, and I’ve read the others. Our tastes in literature and music are similar. We’ve only met in person a handful of times, but I consider him a friend. 

Nearly two years ago, Troy began telling me about disturbing similarities between the words of Jordan B. Peterson, the Canadian superstar-professor/bestselling author, and those of Adolf Hitler. In a series of emails, and later in Facebook posts, he shared examples of what he described as Peterson’s plagiarism of the Nazi leader’s writings. 

I could see that the language was somewhat similar, but I wasn’t convinced that Peterson lifted so many phrases and ideas from Hitler. I wondered if the wordings Troy highlighted weren’t somewhat common constructions — like “a topsy-turvy world” or “something for everyone” — and I told him so. But what to one person is nothing more than blurry lines on the surface of a dead planet is to another proof of the Martians’ engineering genius.

Back in September 2019, I spent most of one day with Troy. We discussed Peterson and some other topics. He was (and remains, if our regular correspondence is anything to go by) reasonable and reasoning. His eyes did not swivel. I saw no foam on his lips. 

While we were driving through rural Taiwan, roughly equidistant between where he lives and where I’m based, he asked me to take a look at the foreword of his just-published book about Peterson, The Devil and His Due. It was the part that was giving him the most trouble, and he realized if it wasn’t any good, a lot of readers wouldn’t get into the chapters where he compares Peterson’s lectures and writing with those of Hitler, Jung, and others. 

He didn’t say so, but I think he approached me because he knew I’m skeptical about his thesis. Also, I hadn’t (and still haven’t) read the main body of the book, so there was no risk I’d unconsciously depend on something that appears later in the book in order to get his drift. He asked for no-holds-barred feedback. I gave it, inasmuch as it was necessary, and wished him the best of luck. 

Taiwan Startups Develop Plastics-Free Products

This is a longer version of my article in the November 2020 issue of Taiwan Business Topics:

“In Taiwan, we use something like 16 billion plastic bags every year, and fewer than 10 percent of them are recycled,” says Jason Huang (黃之揚), co-founder of Re-Think, a not-for-profit organization that aims to protect Taiwan’s coastal and marine environments.

This dismal recycling rate is not entirely the fault of consumers, Huang points out. In the case of bags, the quantity of retrievable plastic is often so small that those who collect or process recyclables for a living do not accept them.

Advice posted on the website of Taipei City Government’s Environmental Protection Bureau in May 2018 reminds householders that only clean, single-material bags can be recycled. Bags contaminated by oil or solids should be thrown out with general waste; plastic packaging for snacks is often laminated with aluminum foil and so cannot be reclaimed, the website explains.

As part of its plan to get rid of all single-use plastic bags, straws, and beverage cups by 2030, Taiwan’s government has already banned supermarkets and convenience stores from giving out free plastic bags. Despite that restriction, each day millions of bags are used just once, to hold a bento box or some soup. Few individuals bring their own containers when buying cooked food. Others say they would, but tiffin carriers and Tupperware-type boxes are neither light nor compact.

“People understand that reducing plastics consumption is an important goal, but this is ‘a society of convenience,’” says Huang.

Lynn Kao (高海琪) and Will Chien (簡仲威), co-founders of Agooday, hold a similar view. But rather than organize educational and community activities like beach cleanups, they are trying to change people’s behavior by offering a novel product.

The duo launched the Pockeat reusable food-bag (pictured above) after a wildly successful 2017 crowdfunding effort. Seeking NT$1 million via zeczec.com, they raised NT$24.04 million. So far, they have sold more than 90,000 of the bags.

The two-liter Pockeat, which retails for NT$640, weighs 40 grams. The three-liter version (price NT$690) weighs 47 grams. Both can be folded flat to fit inside a pocket or a handbag.

The bag’s lining is waterproof, oil resistant, and heatproof up to 120 degrees Celsius. This inner bag is made from food-grade TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane). In Taiwan, Kao says, unused TPU can be recyclable, but after exposure to oil or food, it cannot be recycled.

Asked why Agooday does not use recycled PET bottle fabric for the Pockeat’s inner bag, Kao explains that current regulations do not allow recycled material to be used in the manufacturing of food containers.

By adjusting a velcro strip, the user can shrink the capacity so small portions do not bounce around. The bag’s handle is designed for easy carrying or hanging on bicycle handlebars.

“Compared to free plastic bags, people think the Pockeat is quite expensive, so we try to educate them about both the environmental cost of single-use bags and the health issues. For instance, it’s not safe to use disposable bags for hot soup,” says Kao.

The company commissioned SGS to test the Pockeat and certify it as safe for storing hot and cold foods. To help the public get to know the Pockeat, Agooday has published videos showing how the bags should be used, cleaned, and dried.

Asked about the product’s overall carbon footprint, Kao replies: “We don’t know, and it would cost a lot to get a recognized team to calculate it. The key point of our products is to replace disposable plastic and reduce the amount of garbage in the ocean, so it’s important to use them as many times as possible.”

Kao claims the Pockeat, “can be used for forever,” and Agooday offers a repair service to extend the product’s life. There is a small charge to cover material, labor and shipping. In an average month, the company does three or four repair jobs.

In addition to asking the public to do right by the environment, Agooday tries to attract customers with Taiwan-centric designs (Mount Jade features on one edition) and by collaborating with digital-sticker entrepreneur Kanahei and the creators of Bac Bac and Taiwan Bar.

One reason why the Pockeat is not cheap is that Kao and Chien decided early on to source all materials and have all manufacturing done in Taiwan. “If we moved our production to China, we’d cut our costs in half, but we want the Pockeat to be made here, to reduce the carbon footprint from factory to consumer, and to better control the quality” says Kao.

Finding a willing and capable manufacturer was far from easy, she explains. Most factory owners are used to working with big buyers, so it took some time to convince them to work with Agooday.

“We also faced some quality issues. The inner bags are manufactured by high frequency welding, and the factory didn’t QC every piece. We found some with defects, so we had to change manufacturer and delay deliveries. It’s very important to us that we have good quality products for our customers.”

The Pockeat was not Agooday’s first product. In 2014, Kao and Chien devised a biodegradable alternative to the plastic toothbrush.

According to the company’s website, 100 million toothbrushes are thrown away in Taiwan each year, polluting ecosystems and eventually degrading into microplastics which enter the food chain. To trim this tide of waste, Agooday sells a toothbrush with a bamboo handle (coated with beeswax and flaxseed oil to prevent mold) and nylon bristles.

Agooday toothbrushes — like their plastic counterparts — have to be replaced every few months. Kao advises customers to dispose of them by plucking off and throwing the bristles in a trash can, then burying the handle in soil it can decompose. The nylon is not biodegradable, but unlike conventional petroleum-based nylon, it is made from castor oil, which is a renewable resource.

For a period, the company was selling a 100-percent biodegradable (but vegan-unfriendly) toothbrush with hog’s hair bristles instead of nylon bristles. “Due to quality control issues, we discontinued that version,” Kao says.

The toothbrushes are made in China. “We’d like to keep our dental-products manufacturing in Taiwan, but honestly it’s very hard to find suitable factories in Taiwan, as most of them have moved to China or Southeast Asia,” laments Kao.

Agooday’s plastic-free dental floss is made of silk. It is sold in a reusable bottle, while refills are packed in paper. “For vegans, we’ve tried to get cruelty-free silk, but as the quantity we need isn’t great, it’s hard to obtain,” says Kao.

Like the founders of Agooday, James Chuang (莊麒勳) has examined Taiwanese lifestyles, and seen ways to scale down plastics consumption.

“I started Helashuo Co., Ltd. in 2017 because I wanted to reduce plastic use through innovative products. Here in Taiwan, many people ride scooters, and raincoats are in great demand, but they’re made from petrochemicals. That why we started with raincoats,” he says.

Both Agooday and Helashuo have benefitted from government help. The former received advice and financial support through the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Service Industry Innovation Research and Development Program (SIIR), while the latter qualified for a Taipei City Startup subsidy of NT$700,000 in 2018.

Helashuo’s products are sold under the LIve For Eco brand name through several websites, including its own.

The outer layer of Helashuo’s raincoat, which accounts for more than 70 percent of its total weight, is pure cotton — “a natural material that naturally decomposes,” Chuang stresses. Cotton is a hydrophilic fabric, meaning it absorbs water, and Chuang admits the raincoat may get slightly heavier when it gets wet.

The waterproof inner layer is made of polyurethane (PU), which he describes as an “eco-friendly plastic.” Proponents of PU argue that it is preferable to most other plastics. It does not contain chemicals that interfere with the endocrine and hormone systems of humans and other creatures, nor does it influence PH levels in soil or water. There are also various ways in which PU items can be recycled back into its prepolymer constituents.

Biobased and biodegradable types of PU are available, but Helashuo uses petrobased PU. “Nobody wants to recycle and reuse this material, so our job is to reduce environmental impact by using cotton to cut petrochemicals consumption,” Chuang says.

Helashuo is currently perfecting flip-flops made of cotton, cork, and natural raw rubber. “These natural materials aren’t water-resistant, but they’re suitable for use indoors, or outside in dry weather. Most important, they can all decompose naturally,” says Chuang. “We’re still doing market testing, and we’ll adjust this product. We hope our new flip-flop can go on sale in 2021.”

Earlier this year, when Helashuo launched a range of child-sized raincoats. Chuang used zeczec.com to attract money and publicity. He admits that he purposely set a low target of NT$100,000 to ensure it would be met early on in the 60-day fundraising period. The campaign concluded on September 23 with pledges totalling just over NT$1.6 million. “Including marketing costs, we’ll need much more money to run this project. The money [raised through zeczec.com] will go toward manufacturing the first batch,” he says.

All LIve For Eco products are made in Taiwan, and pricing is a major challenge, Chuang admits. He explains: “Natural materials are more expensive than petrochemicals, and manufacturing in Taiwan is more expensive than in China or Vietnam.”

A LIve For Eco raincoat last just as long as ones made of conventional materials, says Chuang. They are, however, significantly more expensive. LIve For Eco’s prices may be more acceptable to consumers in countries where the standard is living is higher, Chuang says. For this reason, he expects to focus on developing overseas markets and children products. “We’re very interested in partnering with big companies, and we have the ability to customize our products, or even develop new ones, for them,” he adds.

Unlike the entrepreneurs behind Agooday and Helashuo, the founders of Uanuan (源源鋼藝) can draw on decades of industrial experience. The brand’s name derives from the first part of the names of two factories established in the 1960s by James Wang’s (王冠翔) grandfather. Wang is Uanuan’s creative director; his father is in charge of production.

Uanuan’s first product — a set of salt and pepper shakers called One Shake — was not specifically designed to replace single-use plastics. It did, however, win both a Red Dot Design Award and Golden Pin Design Award.

Its best-selling item, however, is explicitly pitched as a solution to one of the Taiwanese public’s most polluting habits. The description of the Hiding Tumbler (pictured below) on Uanuan’s website highlights a statistic as shocking as Jason Huang’s plastic-bag tally: Roadside kiosks sell an estimated 1.5 billion cups of tea and other beverages per year. Because only a small minority of customers bring their own containers, it is likely that the thirst for freshly-squeezed juices and pearl milk tea generates four million pieces of trash per day.

According to James Wang, one unique selling point of the Hiding Tumbler is that users can switch between a thick straw and a thin straw; made of Eastman Tritan copolyester, these are supplied with the tumbler. Between sips, the 750ml cup can be sealed with a click, the straw on the inside, away from gritty city air.

The cup is double-layer stainless steel, in which iced drinks stay cold for up to 12 hours. On the hottest days of summer, the website assets, there is no need to add so many ice cubes the drink’s taste ends up diluted. When carrying cold liquid on a sweltering day, no condensation forms on the exterior. Hot beverages keep their warmth for up to 8 hours.

“We do all our own manufacturing, but despite over fifty years’ experience, we still faced many ordeals during the manufacturing process. Improving and sustaining the quality of our products has been the most important thing,” says Wang.

Uanuan’s website claims that, if you use a Hiding Tumbler three or more times a week, in around half a year, the environmental cost of manufacturing it will be canceled out by the quantity of plastic you will have avoided using. The tumbler comes with a carrying bag made of recycled PET bottle fiber.

Many people complain about having to discard an appliance or a utensil that is otherwise in perfect condition, simply because one part of it is broken. To avoid this situation, Uanuan offers replacement straws, lids, and other components through its website.

The website also sells spares for Uanuan’s Bendong compartmentalized meal-boxes. Like the Hiding Tumbler, the boxes are made of stainless steel. If users want their food to stay hot even longer, they can order a silicone inner insulation layer.

About 75 percent of Uanuan’s sales are through online stores. The brand is now sold in Hong Kong, Macao, and South Korea, and is in the process of entering the Japanese market. Yet Wang says: “We’re not in a hurry to expand very fast into international markets. We hope first we can be on a firm footing in Taiwan, and more Taiwanese can know us, love what we do and what we make, and share our beliefs,” he says.

“If we don’t cut down our plastics consumption or increase our recycling, the landfills where incinerator ash is dumped will soon fill up,” says Re-Think’s Huang. Finding new landfill sites is exceptionally difficult, he adds, because as soon as a location is proposed, those living nearby protest.

In Huang’s opinion, more people now understand the importance of curtailing the use of plastic, but “behavior hasn’t changed much, and total plastics production isn’t falling.” The popularity of online shopping and food-delivery apps have pushed up the amount of plastic discarded by households, he says.

The Environmental Protection Administration is working with vendors and trying to figure how to reduce single-use packaging, yet Huang complains that government policies are sometimes watered down when they run into opposition. Asked if the 2030 target can be met, he says: “I’m not sure how it’ll go.”

Environmental Impact Assessment

…is the name of my bimonthly sustainability/ecology column for Taipei Times, which formally debuted in today’s newspaper.

The column soft-launched on September 23 with an article about Buy Directly From Farmers, a social enterprise that helps consumers order organic/pesticide-free produce from Taiwanese agriculturalists. Two weeks after that, I profiled Taiwanese-German zero-waste advocate Shia Su. For the October 28 issue, I looked at the state of local avifauna with the help of the Taiwan Wild Bird Federation.

The first piece to appear under the Environmental Impact Assessment banner focused on the ragged yet crucial woodlands that struggle to survive a stone’s throw from the ocean. Two entities are working hard to protect and extend these windbreak forests: The Buddhist-oriented Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation (which provided the photo here) and the central government’s Forestry Bureau (in particular, the bureau’s Taiwan Forestry Research Institute).

Several articles and one piece of hate mail

Pretty much everything I’ve written in the past five months has been shaped by the pandemic.

I was eager to return to the subject of multi-level marketing (MLM), because in my previous article I’d not been able to cover certain aspects of this much-loathed industry. But rather than develop ideas I’d been sitting on since late last year, the editor and I thought it best to look at how MLM companies are struggling to control unscrupulous or misinformed direct sellers who see COVID-19 as a golden opportunity to promote air-filtering machines and nutritional supplements.

To research the piece, I resumed contact with the MLM managers who helped me in 2019. After the second article appeared on May 28, the spectrum of responses I got from them surprised and amused me. A manager at one told me: “The article is really incisive, I learned from you a lot. I will share it with all our members by our official FB.” Another company made no comment, while the third protested: “I must tell you that we are quite disappointed with the tone of your article, which makes [us] and the industry as a whole look bad.”

It’s been many years since I’ve received feedback like that. Perhaps I’m too kind to the people and businesses I write about…

I then covered the issue of working from home (WFH) / working remotely, which I first wrote about in late 2006. In all that time, the needle has barely moved, even though WFH could help Taiwan with its low birth-rate and serious traffic congestion.

Recalling an article I did last year on two-tier pricing in Taiwanese tourism, my editor at Taipei Times asked me to try to find out why Taiwan’s government decided that most foreign residents shouldn’t qualify for the stimulus coupons it began to issue just a few days ago. I approached several officials and various ministries, but the authorities wouldn’t tell me their reasons. We have to assume the thinking behind the exclusion would bring shame on the government, or that officials were too lazy to revise rules set way back in 2009 for a similar program. You can see what I did find out here.

The photo here is one I took in the main seafood market in Donggang, Pingtung County. It appears in A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai.

 

 

 

Coronavirus and Taiwan’s tourism industry

Coronavirus aka COVID-19 aka “Wuhan flu”: If there’s a bigger news story in 2020, I dread to think what it might be. Earth attacked by extraterrestrials, perhaps?

The intersection of travel and business has always interested me as much as actual destinations, so no one who knows me can have been surprised that I decided to write about the current epidemic’s disastrous impact on tourism-related businesses. This is the original (and somewhat longer) draft of my article “A lost season for the tourism industry” in today’s Taipei Times.

On February 9, licensed tour-guide George Lu realized things were likely to get worse before they’d get better. The official death toll from COVID-19 in China had topped 800, and the virus had spread to several other countries.

The previous day, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center had announced that travelers entering the country after transiting through Hong Kong or Macau would have to stay in home quarantine for 14 days. As people throughout the world reviewed their travel plans, Lu received a slew of coronavirus-related cancellations. He decided he’d have to develop another source of income.

That afternoon, he put a notice on the bulletin board in his apartment building in New Taipei City’s Tucheng District, advertising his services as an English tutor. The following day, he visited the language center in neighboring Banqiao District where he taught between 2007 and 2012.

The language center’s boss didn’t offer him any work, yet Lu left feeling somewhat reassured: “He told me that several of his students had quit because their parents didn’t want them to risk catching ‘Wuhan flu’ in the buxiban [cram school], and that they were now being tutored at home.”

Lu has found some students, but his current income is less than a quarter of what he can earn by leading tours for 20 to 25 days each month. “Unlike tourists, students never tip,” he rues.

In Taiwan, few industries are feeling the pinch from COVID-19 more than tourism. The epidemic was likely one reason behind the abrupt closure earlier this month of the Landis Taichung, a five-star hotel.

Taipei’s National Palace Museum, a must-see for both Taiwanese and foreign tourists, was visited by a mere 62,144 people in February 2020, compared to 207,677 people in January, and 407,593 in February 2019. According to a volunteer answering the telephone at the visitor center in Checheng, the number of people visiting this spot in Nantou County on weekends is “down by more than half.”

“Our first coronavirus cancellation was an Israeli couple who’d signed up for a 14-day tour. They arrived in Hong Kong on January 27, and immediately decided to head home,” says Mark Pemberton, founder and managing director of Life of Taiwan. (This reporter writes and consults for Life of Taiwan on an ad hoc basis.)

According to Pemberton, about 80% of his company’s tours between mid-January and the end of April have been scrapped, and he’s bracing for further cancellations or postponements.

Life of Taiwan has been offering full refunds or credit for those who plan to rebook at a later date. The former cost the company a significant amount of money, even if all deposits paid to secure accommodation are retrieved. “If a client pays by credit card, the card company takes at least 2% before passing the money onto us. If we give a refund through the card, the client has to receive the full amount, so we need to pay another 2% on top of the amount we send. We end up out of pocket,” Pemberton explains.

Twenty passengers on the cruise ship Celebrity Millennium booked a one-day excursion to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival through Life of Taiwan. However, as the vessel approached Keelung in early February, the authorities denied it permission to dock, because of virus fears. “That tour was sold on non-refundable terms, but we decided to give a full refund as it was an unavoidable situation,” says Pemberton.

He praises his core employees for their willingness to shift to a part-time schedule in order to cut costs, saying: “I certainly sympathize with agencies which have heavier overheads. We’re going to use this quiet period to optimize our products and refine our systems. We want to bounce back as an even better company — but this year is going to be a wipe-out. We have the resources to ride out the storm until 2021. While we’re not counting on government assistance, we do hope there’s some help for the industry as a whole.”

“We’re hoping to be back on track by September or October,” says Simon Foster, co-destinations manager (with his wife, Tot) at the Taiwan office of cycling-tour specialists Grasshopper Adventures.

“The effective job Taiwan has done so far at minimizing the impact of the virus has been noted by the international press, and may be the reason we continue to get bookings for later in the year, while operators we know in other countries are not. But we’ve written off the first half of the year, and June to September is our quiet season,” he goes on to explain. “There’s little we can do about [the situation]. We’re trying to turn this crisis into an opportunity, and use the time to get our new bikes road-ready, improve business practices, train staff, and get on with the other jobs we don’t normally have time for.”

None of the luxury or high-end hotels contacted by this reporter were willing to discuss the pandemic’s impact on occupancy rates or food-and-beverage sales. Some smaller businesses, however, are candid about the struggles they’re facing.

“Most homestays in Yilan have suffered a lot of cancellations for this month and next month,” says Chris Kuo, former chairman of the Yilan County Lodging Association. “Some were due to fights being cancelled,” he adds.

“The Tourism Bureau is offering several different loan schemes, and I’m suggesting to our members they use these tools to reduce short-term financial pressures. They can also adjust staff working-hours,” advises Kuo. Unlicensed accommodation providers — which, he estimates, account for 35% to 45% of Yilan’s B&Bs — aren’t eligible for government help.

“So far, I’ve not heard of an unusual number of homestays closing down, or their owners trying to sell them. However, if the coronavirus crisis isn’t easing by the end of April, I think we could see several going out of business,” says Kuo, who with his family owns and manages three B&Bs in the Luodong area.

“Actually, during situations like COVID-19, many travelers prefer small homestays to big hotels,” Kuo points out. He foresees that, if the epidemic gets worse, some urbanites are likely to temporarily relocate away from crowded cities: “We’re designing a long-stay program. We don’t know if it’ll work, but it’s a way to try to increase the occupancy rate. We’ll give it a shot.”

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A Touch of Zen Guest House in Kaohsiung’s Zuoying District saw revenues drop by nearly 40% in February compared to the previous month. “Things dried up pretty abruptly [in February], with a bunch of cancellations and far fewer new bookings. We were fully booked the weekend of February 8 by runners joining the Kaohsiung marathon, but the event was cancelled due to COVID-19. All of our reservations that weekend were understandably canceled,” says co-owner Yueh Shu-wen.

A Touch of Zen had its soft opening last April and its grand opening in September. “In October, when we were fully booked for 12 nights and partially booked for another 11 nights… December and January were even better,” Yueh says.

At a different location, Yueh and her husband used to run Bark, a hot-dog restaurant that they permanently closed on March 15.

Because of coronavirus fears, “dine-in business has been down for everyone, but we think recently we did better than other restaurants, as we had two open-air dining areas,” she explains. “A lot of people prefer that kind of environment than in a closed place with an air-conditioner recycling air. Families with kids told us just that: They felt safe, because they could eat in our courtyard.”

“Even though business was solid for most of the four and a half years we were open, we’d been planning to close this spring due to other factors,” says Yueh. “We probably would’ve stayed open through April or May, but COVID-19 made us shrug and say, ‘why bother?’”

Some travel bloggers are having to tighten their belts. “My website’s traffic and earnings, with which I currently support my family of two adults and two infants, are down about 70%,” says Nick Kembel, owner of Spiritual Travels.

“Pre-coronavirus, I was seeing well over 200,000 page-views monthly on my site. Now it’s down to around 80,000,” says Kembel, who lived in New Taipei for more than a decade until October 2019.

The Edmonton, Canada-based writer/photographer spells out why he’s taking an especially big hit: “Normally, about 80% of my traffic is to my Taiwan content. After Taiwan, the places I mainly cover are Japan, South Korea, and Italy, some of the countries worst hit by the virus.”

“I’m a member of various blogging and travel forums, and it seems that travel bloggers covering Asia and Europe are being massively affected,” says Kembel. “Through a Facebook group I run, called ‘Taiwan Travel Planning,’ I’ve noticed that a trickle of people are still planning trips to Taiwan, but they’re all concerned about the situation on the ground — what will happen when they arrive, whether things will be open, and if unexpected travel bans or flight cancellations could wreck their trip.”

Looking for patterns in page-view numbers

More than 20 years ago, I kicked off my writing career by doing travel pieces for an English-language newspaper here in Taiwan. A few books and hundreds (possibly more than a thousand, I long ago stopped counting) of articles later, things seem to have come full circle. Since summer 2018, I’ve been taking care of the weekly travel column at Taipei Times

In 2018, I wrote 22 Highways & Byways articles. The 2019 total will be 48. I also wrote five non-travel features for the newspaper this year, one of which will appear on New Year’s Eve. Each article appears twice on the newspaper’s website — once as a conventional webpage with photos, then again in a text-only format labeled “Print Edition.” Google searches favor the former, while the latter pages don’t show how many times they’ve been viewed. Earlier this week, I decided to tally the visible viewing statistics in case I could learn something useful about readers’ preferences.

My writing doesn’t set the Internet alight. I’ve long known that. Page-view numbers are mostly four digits. In terms of online eyeballs, the most successful article I wrote for Taipei Times this year was the non-column feature “Expats play key role in boosting Taiwan’s tourism” (September 10). So far, it’s accumulated just over 12,000 views. The Highways & Byways winner, “A modest achievement in Nantou” (April 19), looks set to top 7,000 views any day now. Oddly, it’s a fair way ahead of the next five most-read travel pieces, all of which were viewed between 5,000 and 5,500 times.

TT Shrines 8So what common denominators are shared by the most popular articles? It’s very hard to say. People searching for cycling travelogs might stumble across “A modest achievement.” But of the next five? A couple are about museums (and very different museums: one focuses on insects, the other is archaelogical); one describes a hike near Alishan; the other two cover stretches of coastline seldom visited by international travelers. Is there a “slow burn” effect, with articles gradually picking up page views months after publication? I’ve no idea. Perhaps in six months’ time I’ll go back and check the numbers again, to see if certain types of article are more likely to become evergreens.

East Taiwan is many Westerners’ favorite region, yet the articles I wrote about Taitung and Hualien didn’t get much attention, typically fewer than 3,000 views. Is this because I steered cleared of famous destinations like Taroko Gorge? Perhaps. So… will I change the way I choose places to write about? No, I won’t. I’ve learned no clear lessons from this little bit of web-data analysis, and I’m very fortunate to have an editor who gives me a great deal of freedom. I’ll continue to visit and write up destinations that I think deserve coverage, be they religious sites, museums, or nuclear research reactors.

UPDATE: A few weeks after I wrote this piece, page-view counts disappeared from all Taipei Times articles! I’m told the website will be revamped in the near future.

A once-in-a-lifetime book review?

cropbtWhen my first book came out, back at the start of this millennium, I was fortunate to receive a very favorable review in Taipei Times. After that, I thought it unlikely I’d ever again have my name on a book winning such plaudits.

However, some weeks back Eugene N. Anderson, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside, posted on Amazon.com a 5-star review of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai, the food book I co-wrote with Katy Hui-wen Hung:

This is one of the best food books I have ever read–authoritative and densely packed with facts, but extremely readable and delightful. It is more of a food ethnography of Taiwan than a food history of Taipei, but all the better for that. One very good detail is that the linguistic transcriptions are excellent and sophisticated, not only from Mandarin (in standard Pinyin) but also from Hokkien, the usual spoken language of Taiwan. Hokkien is a most unappreciated language–beautiful, flexible, adaptable, creative, with an incredible oral literature, and I am glad to see it get some love for once (it is slowly dying out as China pushes Mandarin on everybody). There are also some words from Hakka and Cantonese, and from Austronesian languages. This book is a linguists’ and ethnobiologists’ delight.

Particularly unique and interesting is the material on the Austronesian-speaking Aboriginal peoples of Taiwan, a diverse and fascinating group almost unknown in the English-language literature. They have a range of unique crops, including a species of quinoa, independently domesticated from the South American one–a striking case of parallelism … this is an exceptionally carefully done book, in marked contrast to too many books on Chinese food. If you are at all interested in Asian food, you need this book.

Professor Anderson is himself the author of landmark books about food, such as Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture and The Food of China. Thanks to his immense experience in Taiwan and Greater China, he was able to point out two minor mis-translations in our book which no one else seems to have noticed! If we’re able to revise the book for a second edition, correcting those errors will be among the changes.

Thank you, Professor Anderson, for your kindness and support!