Taipei, July 28 (CNA) Taiwan's outlying island chain of Matsu will for the first time open up a duty-free shopping center and boutiques selling luxury products later this year as it continues to try to woo more Chinese tourists after agreeing to allow casinos there for the same reason, a tourism official has said.
The group of islands is located only 20 kilometers from mainland China, but sees only about 7,000 Chinese visitors a year. It wants a lot more. To attract more tourists, local residents passed a referendum in early July to allow casino resorts to be built there for the first time.
Now, the county wants to begin attracting more tourists and prepare for a hoped-for influx of tourists by opening shops selling luxury brands, said Guu Yung-yuan, director of the Matsu National Scenic Area Administration.
"We want Matsu to be recognized as a destination for shopping," Guu said, adding that Matsu's shift in image from a pristine island to luxurious vacation village could appeal to Chinese tourists—known for their strong interests in luxury brands, as well as Taiwan-made goods.
The duty-free shopping center will mainly provide Taiwanese goods.
The boutiques will sell top brands — like Gucci or LV— at prices that are even cheaper than Hong Kong and other Chinese coastal cities, Guu said.
The market potential is huge, Guu said, explaining that Chinese tourists are fond of merchandise from natural soaps, to skincare products, to electric rice cookers.
Initially, Matsu will introduce a 1,600-square meter duty-free mall on Aug. 4. It is hoped that the mall will generate revenue of NT$60 million (US$2 million) each year.
By the end of October, Guu said, more boutique stores will be opened by Tasa Meng Co., which is currently running similar businesses at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.
Setting the casino factor aside, Guu said he hoped Matsu's new branding will help it bring some 200,000 tourists to the island over the next 10 years, with Chinese tourists accounting for half that figure. It currently gets up to 100,000 tourists per year.
An important defense outpost on the frontline against Communist China's attacks during the Chinese Civil War, Matsu remained a war-zone civil administration until 1992, but has since relied on tourism for economic growth.
The lack of jobs has forced many young people to leave Matsu to work in mainland Taiwan. Hopes for more jobs and prosperity were among the reasons a majority of the residents approved the casino referendum.
Guu said a "mini three links" framework established in 2001 allowing limited postal, transport and trade links between some Chinese cities and Taiwan-held outlying islands used to generate a significant number of Chinese tourists for Matsu.
At one point, the "mini three links" served as a major channel for Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan. Nearly 20,000 Chinese people made use of it in 2009.
But the prosperous times seem to have faded after the launching of direct flights between major Chinese and Taiwanese cities in 2008. Since then, the number of Chinese visitors to Matsu has dropped to only 7,630 last year, accounting for 7 percent of all travelers to the islands.
Chinese tourists no longer have to go through Matsu or other outlying islands to visit mainland Taiwan. They can travel directly to Taiwan proper, Guu said.
But Guu acknowledged that challenges laid ahead for Matsu as it tries to remake itself to appeal to Chinese tourists. One was the cost of travel for Chinese tourists. He said cross-strait discussions over ways to lower travel costs for Chinese tourists would be a pressing issue.
In addition, Guu said Matsu also needs to provide more flexible ferry services. He said a combination of chartered and scheduled sailings might be launched in the future to cut down on the current transportation costs, which averages to about NT$3,000 per round trip.
(By Lee Hsin-Yin)