As China tourism surges, Taiwan pushes for piece of U.S. market

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NEW YORK -- To really understand China, one must visit Taiwan.

So said Michael Chang, the director of the Taiwan Visitors Association. Chang oversees the Taiwan governments campaign to attract U.S. travelers. Taiwan is spending $2.6 million this year to push its U.S. visitor numbers from 373,000 in 2004 to 600,000 by 2008.

The government is trying to shift Taiwans economy from its manufacturing base to tourism. But Changs assertion is more than just a catchy pitch. It has a basis in history. Two historical events in particular conspired to make Taiwan a repository of Chinese culture: the Communist Revolution of 1949 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.

When the Chinese Civil War ended with the victory of the Communists in 1949, the Nationalist opposition, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan and established the Republic of China. Chiang carried with him art treasures of China, 655,000 pieces in all, which had previously been housed in the Palace Museum in Peking but had been moved to safe storage when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931.

The art treasures appeared again in public in 1965 when Taiwan opened the National Palace Museum. The works span 4,000 years of Chinese history.

The mainland government may want to debate the ownership of the art (as it does the whole island), but according to Chang, it is doubtful whether it would have survived the communist revolution and the Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao Zedong launched an attack on cultural history that left Chinas cultural legacy in tatters.

The National Palace Museum is now undergoing its first restoration since its founding in 1965, with a new front, a new entrance and parking underneath. 

Taiwan will open a new southern branch of the museum in Chiavi in 2008. The museum will feature pan-Asian art, including Indian, Indonesian and Thai works.

Taiwan has also preserved Chinas culture of cuisine, Chang said.

During the civil war, Chinas most famous chefs moved to Taiwan, he said. They came from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzho and Canton. All the local cuisines were gathered on one small island. We have the best Chinese food in the world.

While the cuisine arts took a beating on the mainland, Chang said that they survived intact on Taiwan. If you want to taste all Chinese food in a short period, you must come to Taiwan.

If art and cuisine were challenged on the mainland under communism, religion suffered an even worse fate.

In China there was no religion, said Chang. But it was kept very well in Taiwan. Our old temples are still functioning. A 4,000-year-old temple in China is a historical place, but in Taiwan, people still attend, they still practice the religion.

To experience Chinese culture, Chang said, you may choose between the Republic of China, Hong Kong or Taiwan.

Taiwan does not expect to rival China, which has the hottest economy in the world as well as one of the hottest tourist destinations, but to augment it. 

Taiwan as a single destination now is weak, said Chang. We always combine it with Hong Kong, [the Republic of] China, Bangkok or Tokyo. Eventually, we want to promote a week in Taiwan.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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