Biking mainlanders shift bias in Taipei

For Global Times http://www.globaltimes.cn

When in late August, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin announced the addition of some 30 rental sites with a fleet of close to 1,000 brand-new bicycles to the YouBike bike-sharing system with the declared aim of making Taipei a healthier and more eco-conscious city, I, like many other Taipei taxpayers, had my reservations.

It was widely expected that the Taiwanese, who cherish commuting via their rattling motor-scooters or air-conditioned cars, subways and city buses, would cold-shoulder Hau’s well-meant initiative, leaving the bikes, which can be rented and returned for a few bucks, slowly but surely rusting away. Nevertheless, it took only a few weeks to belie this bleak forecast.

A rental site has been set up also close to my home, and here in the alleys around Fujin Street, a picturesque part of town famed for its shady banyan trees and classy coffee shops, on any given day the weather permits scores of well-clad middle-class families can be seen riding the orange bikes. They check out the neighborhood while happily chatting away. Even more surprisingly, a fair share of them are tourists from the mainland.

And it is this sight that makes the stereotypes of mainland tourists in Taiwan crumble in an instance.

Ever since mainland tourism to Taiwan took off in 2008 in line with spectacularly warming cross-Straits relations, Taiwanese political factions and affiliated media outlets who oppose rapprochement with the mainland have been spending great efforts in painting mainland tourists as a loud and unsophisticated bunch.

“Wherever they get off their tour busses in big groups to take their pictures, they ruin the atmosphere so that no one else can enjoy it,” locals claim, with the bottom line being that mainlanders behavior differs greatly from that of tourists from elsewhere.

Although some 1.2 million mainland tourists came here in the first six months of this year, and hardly any were reported by the local media as having caused trouble, let alone as breaking local laws, this image is still deeply rooted among a fair share of the island’s population.

East Asians, as opposed to most Westerners, prefer traveling in tour groups. They feel the arrangements are significantly less of an headache, there is an energetic tourist guide explaining everything, and it is also considerably cheaper than doing it on one’s own initiative.

The drawbacks are just as obvious, however. When sitting on one of those top-notch yet crammed tour buses, being hastily driven from one landmark to the other, you have virtually no chance of fraternizing with the locals.

Even worse, they don’t catch sight of you until the very moment you step out of the bus, and, no matter how much you might be trying, if you are surrounded by dozens of fellow travelers mobbing around in an uncouth fashion, there’s little chance to make yourself appearing a more pleasant person.

But the mainland families who ride Taipei’s fancy YouBikes through Fujin Street break out of this vicious circle. Presumably, they do not travel via agencies or in a contracted group but come under the free independent travelers (FITs) scheme.

Granted, arranging a Taiwan FIT trip is undoubtedly significantly more of a hassle for mainlanders than coming in a tour group, and of the 5,000 who, on average, have recently been coming here daily, only a mere 0.3 percent took the independent option.

However, they arguably get so much more of the island’s pleasant side for their money. And when shared bicycles are chosen on a good day as the mode of transportation, the mental satisfaction the trip brings about is multiplied.

At the same time, the Taipei locals are coming to see the guests from across the Taiwan Straits in a considerably more positive light, and as the number of cycling mainlanders steadily grows, the days of the old stereotypes are numbered.

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