17 April 2019
Homestay Sector Now a Vital Element of Taiwan's Tourism Industry
With the territory now having more than 8,500 separate homestay facilities, these individual accommodation options are widely credited with having played a major role in sustaining the growth of Taiwan's premier 'smokeless' industry.
Seen as a key 'smokeless' industry, tourism has long been a priority sector in Taiwan and a significant development focus for government economic policy over recent years. In addition to encouraging residents to travel around their home territory via various incentive schemes, the government has also stepped up its overseas promotional efforts in a bid to attract more overseas tourists.
According to Taiwan Tourism Bureau statistics, the number of overseas visitors to Taiwan in 2018 was 11.07 million, representing year-on-year growth of 3.05%. For that period, the top five sources of outward-bound tourists were Japan, Hong Kong / Macao, South Korea, mainland China and the United States. It is worth noting, though, that out of these five territories, only Japan and the US showed any real increase. Sustaining wider growth, then, has now become the key concern of Taiwan's tourism industry.
The public appetite for outbound travel remains strong in Taiwan, even as enthusiasm for domestic travel has declined. In order to attract more members of the public to travel domestically, as well as to increase the number of returning overseas visitors, Taiwan's tourism industry has introduced a series of more diversified, in-depth and thematic tour packages over recent years, while considerable investment has also been made into the country's tourism infrastructure.
Accordingly, multi-star-rated tourist hotels have proliferated in Taiwan's major cities and popular visitor destinations, while the number of homestay facilities has also multiplied rapidly, becoming an important driver in the development of Taiwan's tourism industry in the process.
In order to keep pace with this, The Regulations for the Management of Homestay Facilities were promulgated in 2001 and have since provided a legal basis for offering paid accommodation to tourists by family operators (similar to B&Bs in Europe and America). Following the enactment of the legislation, the number of homestay operators in Taiwan has increased steadily.
According to figures from the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, in February 2003 the territory had just 65 legal homestay facilities, offering a total of 280 rooms. By January 2019, the number had soared to 8,555 with 35,525 rooms on offer – a 130-fold increase in 16 years. The majority of such facilities can now be found in the eastern counties and in such popular tourist-oriented cities as Hualien, Yilan and Taitung.
In line with the Regulations, homestay facilities were defined as accommodation offered to tourists by families as a side-line to their principal employment. Such homestays are typically spare rooms in the primary family home and are usually set close by cultural heritage sites, areas of natural beauty or centres offering a range of leisure activities. Legally, each facility could have a maximum of five rooms available for rent, with the combined area of these rooms not exceeding 150 sq m.
The Regulations were introduced at a time when Taiwan's agricultural market was opening-up to the outside world following the territory's accession to the World Trade Organisation. This resulted in considerable opportunities emerging for the regional farming community, among others.
Under the original terms of the Regulations, homestay facilities had to be close to scenic / tourist spots, national parks, aboriginal enclaves, outlying islands or non-urban locations. In the years since 2001, however, Taiwan's urban and rural areas have undergone significant changes, while the growing influence of the internet and other emerging technologies have also had a major impact on tourism preferences. In light of this, calls grew for a significant update to the original legislation.
Accordingly, in November 2017, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications announced a substantial revision to the Regulations, which saw the law as it applied to homestay facilities being considerably relaxed. Among the key changes were the number of rooms allowed for lodging in a single facility increasing from five to eight, while the total floor area of the rooms was raised to a maximum of 240 sq m. Furthermore, under certain conditions, homestay facilities were approved in multi-family residences, while the repurposing of basements was okayed for the first time.
Previously, one of the primary reasons why few homestay facilities were found in the larger cities, such as Taipei, was that the provisions of the original regulations had frequently been misinterpreted as meaning that they did not apply to urban areas. The 2017 update, however, clarified this and specified that homestay facilities are legal if they are set within an urban environment where the laws pertaining to cultural heritage conservation apply.
Overall, a number of things are seen as having changed since the homestay regulations were first introduced. While, previously, the sector was solely focused on providing overnight lodgings, nowadays increasing numbers of bespoke homestay facilities are set close to local attractions and offer particular benefits, such as personalised tour packages conducted by the hosts / owners. This is partly why the homestay option is now the number-one choice for Taiwan's domestic tourists, while also proving hugely popular with visitors from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macao and the Chinese mainland.
As well as providing accommodation, the wider tourism industry in Taiwan has acknowledged the role homestay operators play in introducing their guests to other local hospitality services, tours and attractions. As such, they are now seen as playing an integral role in driving the overall value of the entire tourism sector.
Despite the clear benefits brought by the growth of the homestay sector, it is believed that a number of challenges are yet to be addressed. Most notably, according to Chen Chih-fu, former President of the Taiwan Rural Accommodation Association, there's no uniform standard for the territory's homestay operators, making it difficult for travel agencies to book tours where consistency of accommodation is often of importance to leisure travellers.
The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the overnight rates charged by many homestay operators are perceived as unrealistically high, while most facilities don't have a sufficient number of rooms to cater for tour groups. At the same time, there is an apparent reluctance on the part of operators to undergo any formal training or to secure any recognised industry qualifications.
Robert Kang, Special Correspondent, Taipei