By James Lee, CNA staff reporter
Walking in the high mountains and breathing the fresh air, a group of foreign college students from eight different countries enjoyed a rare opportunity to experience Taiwan in a way that few tourists can. They are on a two-month program that allows them to stay for free in dormitories operated by the Forestry Bureau, while volunteering their services in Taiwan's forest recreation areas.
"Even before I leave Taiwan, I've already started to miss it," said Maya Le of Vietnam, one of the 16 college students who participated in what the volunteers called the "insightful volunteer tourism" program on the island between July 1 and Aug. 31 through the global youth organization AIESEC.
Taiwan has long been noted for its delicious cuisine and its food culture, but during her stay, what impressed Le the most was its "breathtaking" scenery, said the 20-year-old English major.
"I have fallen in love with the mountains," Le said, adding that she used to be a city girl but her stay in Taiwan has convinced her to spend more time in nature.
The Forestry Bureau under the Cabinet-level Council of Agriculture kicked off the volunteer program in 1996 and since then has recruited some 1,500 volunteers to work as tour guides across the country. But this year is the first time the program has been opened to overseas youngsters.
"We would like to attract more young people to join the effort to maintain the forests and, at the same time, promote Taiwan's nature," Weng Li-hsin, a section chief at the bureau, told CNA.
This year, 16 foreign and 34 local volunteers have been recruited. They were assigned to eight different district offices of the bureau and were asked to mainly do manual labor. Part of their work includes learning from experienced volunteers to help bureau maintain the forest recreation area, organize summer camps and sometimes give guided tours.
As part of the program, all the young volunteers were encouraged to post articles and pictures of their experience on the Internet, with the aim of promoting Taiwan tourism, especially its forest recreation areas to overseas visitors, said Weng.
Taiwan attracted over 6 million foreign visitors in 2011 -- a record number for the country, but only one fifth of the tourists visited its 18 forest recreation areas, according to statistics. Some 60 percent of the foreign visitors were from China, while those from the United States and Europe accounted for less than 10 percent, statistics showed.
Weng said she wanted to use this opportunity to let the volunteers spread the word so that more people around the world, as well as in Taiwan, will know about its other side, which is generously endowed by nature.
So far, foreign volunteers' blogs alone have attracted some 30,000 clicks.
Lee Tao-sheng, the bureau's director-general told CNA that this program has gotten great feedback. The bureau is planning to not only duplicate it but also expand the project next year in terms of the number of volunteers or their service hours.
It will serve as the foundation of other similar projects, and the bureau will gather all participants' opinions and use them to further improve and enhance any future activities, he added.
Describing the program as "successful and rewarding," Lee said it is one of the best ways to experience the beauty of Taiwan, not just the landscape, but also the local culture and friendliness of Taiwanese people.
At the farewell party for the volunteers, Cuong Dao of Vietnam said his Mandarin has greatly improved over the past 60-odd days, which is another bonus.
Dao said he chose to volunteer in Taiwan over Malaysia and Indonesia as he wanted to improve his Chinese.
"I wanted to be a tour guide in the future, so this volunteer job is like my dream job," he told CNA.
Other volunteers also enjoyed their stay in Taiwan, making good use of the time by exploring the subtropical island in their own ways.
Some went biking along the eastern coast. Others went camping by the 3,310-meter-high Chia Ming Lake. Still others made cultural excursions at local temples and historic sites. It was like "playing and working at the same time," they said.
"I'm really impressed by Taiwan and everything here," said Agnieszka Kurzeja of Poland, who said she is in love with Asian culture and has learnt a lot about Taiwan during the program. "I think it even surpassed my expectations."
Olga Timakova of Russia said that she is already planning to visit Taiwan again for at least several weeks with her friends, as she wants to participate in Taiwanese festivals.
"There are so much worth to see and so much worth to do here," she said.