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Tea Leaves

Success against coronavirus may bring tourism reward

Taiwan and South Korea likely to be seen as safe destinations when outbreak ends

Festivalgoers release lanterns into the sky at the Pingxi Lantern Festival in Pingxi, Taiwan, in March 2018.    © Getty Images

The Taiwanese mountain town of Jiufen is spectacular. Its narrow alleyways are usually packed with visitors, many from overseas, exploring its beautiful teahouses and charming souvenir stores. A rumor that it was the inspiration for ”Spirited Away” -- the 2001 Oscar-winning animated film by Hayao Miyazaki -- does its popularity no harm, even though Miyazaki denies the connection.

For now, though, Jiufen is empty, an economic victim of the coronavirus outbreak that has brought a temporary end to mass tourism. But when normal life returns, Taiwan’s efficient handling of the pandemic is likely to put the self-governing island and its tourist hot spots much higher up the international “must see” list than before. The same applies to South Korea, its East Asian neighbor, which has also attracted international praise for its handling of the outbreak.

Neither government imposed the lockdowns seen in many European nations and some U.S. states. But Taiwan acted quickly when the virus surfaced in China, initially screening arrivals from that country and then quickly barring them. It imposed strict quarantine measures, but kept restaurants, schools and much of the economy going. South Korea closed schools, too, but through mass testing and tracing was able to keep some semblance of normal life.

By late April, Taiwan’s 23 million people had suffered just six deaths. South Korea, which has 51 million people, kept a lid on the virus until a single infected person spread the disease in the southeastern city of Daegu, causing a spike of more than 800 cases in a single day. Testing and tracing brought the daily total of new cases down to single digits by late April, with a total of 243 deaths. As life returned to normal, a single person visited five nightclubs, newly-opened, in downtown Seoul in early May and spread the virus. Authorities moved quickly once again closing all clubs and bars in the city, testing 4,300 out of an estimated 5,500 nightclub visitors and attempting to track down the remaining 1,200.

Historically, Taiwan has not been an international destination ranked alongside popular Asian locations such as Thailand and the Indonesian island of Bali. The languages heard on the crowded streets of Jiufen tend to be Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Japanese -- more than three-quarters of the record 11.86 million international arrivals in Taiwan in 2019 hailed from East Asia.

The same is true of South Korea, where tourist arrivals also hit a record in 2019, with China, Japan and Taiwan accounting for more than 10 million of the 17.5 million visitors. The U.S. came fourth with just over 1 million and, along with Russia in eighth place, was the only non-Asian market in the top 10.

But the successful fight against the coronavirus by both East Asian governments has been widely reported in the West -- especially in hard-hit nations such as the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Spain and France, which have each reported more than 20,000 coronavirus-related deaths. And as lockdowns ease in Europe and North America those who are keen to travel internationally are likely to have different priorities than in the past, seeking out destinations seen as safe, responsible and modern.

There is plenty to build on. Both Taiwan and South Korea are better known for technological and industrial prowess than for tourism, but both have multiple potential attractions for Western tourists, ranging from historic buildings to beaches and mountain ranges.

South Korea, the Land of the Morning Calm, perhaps has the advantage, thanks to the global pull among young people of K-pop groups such as BTS and Blackpink. Yet most international visitors restrict themselves to Seoul, thronging landmarks such as Gyeongbok Palace, the former home of Korean royalty, and the streets of the Myeongdong shopping district, where some stores provide discounts for visitors wearing South Korea’s hanbok traditional dress.

Although the skiing industry received a boost to its international profile from the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, few international visitors venture outside the capital, except for popular tours to the nearby Demilitarized Zone that separates South Korea from North Korea. It is hard to move on the beaches of the south coast in the summer months, but that market is overwhelmingly domestic.

With life slowly returning to something approaching normal, domestic tourists have Taiwan and South Korea to themselves, for now. Eventually, though, local sightseers are likely to be joined by a new wave of global tourists for whom a key attraction is that the two locations are seen as safe places to visit.

Partly as a result of the low casualty rates, the economic damage wreaked by the virus has been less severe in Taiwan and South Korea than in many other places. But exporting is so vital to both that the forecast global recession is likely to be extremely painful. Growing the tourist industry will help to soften the blow. It may be a while, though, before Jiufen sees its steep streets bustling with foreign tourists again.

John Duerden is a Seoul-based writer.

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