By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter
For 26-year-old Japanese Shinnichi Kawasumi, transplanting rice seedlings in a rice paddy in northeastern Taiwan was a unique experience because it brought back childhood memories.
"Somehow I had this nostalgic feeling of my hometown of Nagoya, where my grandparents live," he said after an exhausting day of farming in Nanao Township, one of the sites designated by the Tourism Bureau for a long-term project offering in-depth travel experiences to foreign tourists.
Along with 100-plus participants from countries such as Japan, South Korea and Russia, Kawasumi spent an hour carefully transplanting about 30 rice seedlings he was given.
"It was fun, and I will be more than happy to come back again, trying other crops perhaps," he said.
Kawasumi's farming experience represents a promising niche developed by the Tourism Bureau that capitalizes on Taiwan's rich agricultural resources to create a nostalgic bond between foreign tourists and the land.
Featuring a series of "seeding festivals" being celebrated in the township in Yilan County, including the one in which Kawasumi participated, the bureau said the campaign is aimed at emphasizing Taiwan's unique travel appeal.
"We want to provide profound connections between foreign travelers and locals so they will come back again and again," said Cheng Yi-ping, section chief at the bureau's International Travel Division.
The agricultural tourism program is part of the "Project Vanguard for Excellence," in which the Tourism Bureau has allocated NT$30 billion (US$1 billion) since 2009 to develop marketing approaches that meet the needs of various markets.
By the end of 2012, the project is expected to generate NT$550 billion in tourism revenue, create 400,000 jobs, attract NT$200 billion in private investment, and bring at least 10 major international chain hotels to Taiwan, the bureau said.
The agricultural program itself is not expected to generate impressive statistics -- the bureau is hoping the project will attract 1,500 foreign visitors this year.
But its significance to the "Project Vanguard for Excellence" is not being measured by quantitative indicators. More important will be its ability to expand the scope of experiences offered and their impact on those who visit.
According to a company commissioned by the bureau to develop different marketing strategies, building travel options across a number of sectors is a necessary component of success.
"A premium travel product means you have to provide an experience that involves all dynamics of life, which your clients will remember even after they leave," said Milton Chen, a director of Hi-Power Digitalworld Inc.
Aside from planting crops at natural farms, Chen said, five other similar projects are being held across Taiwan to provide a broader range of experiences -- including a tea harvest in Lugu Township in central Taiwan, fishing in the outlying Liouciou Township, and fruit growing in Fusing Township in northern Taiwan.
In the future, the project will be extended to the hospitality industry so foreign tourists can have their crops turned into meals, the bureau's Cheng said.
"That's what we call 'reap what you sow,'" said Cheng, adding that the agency will spend NT$42 million over the next three years to construct the online platform for the agriculture tourism project.
Describing each of the small projects as a ray of light, Cheng said that when pulled together they will form a powerful word-of-mouth network among visitors, who are likely to return and introduce the experience to others.
"We don't care too much about the growth in numbers in the short term because what we want is to build a brand," she said. "These programs focus on customer relationship management."
The combination of tourism and agriculture, which has contributed significantly to Taiwan's economic development, is also a good way to promote community awareness, according to a farm owner participating in the project.
Chen Chang-chiang, who leases the Nanao Natural Farm, said he hopes to draw nearly 1,000 foreign visitors to his farm this year to experience what he called "community-supported agriculture."
The model starts with procuring fallow land from a group of local landowners, Chen said. Farmers are then hired to tend to the crops, with small areas open for Taiwanese and international tourists to help cultivate.
Harvests are distributed to all shareholders based on their contribution of money, resources and labor.
"The real spirit of the program is to 'share' -- not only the produce but also the exercise itself," he said.
The result is that people in the township can make a living off the 97,000 square meters of land on which rice, carrots, peanuts and passion fruit can be grown while visitors can enjoy a special experience through "working holidays" or in-depth tourism packages.
"Some of our clients are so into farming that they wouldn't have left if their visas were not about to expire," he said.
Chen even leased 20 small pieces of land last year to foreign tourists who then came back from time to time to check on their crops.
Above all, Chen said, the goal of agricultural tourism is to reconnect people to the land.
"If people can get so obsessed with online games such as 'Happy Farm' to grow virtual crops, why can't they put on their boots and feel the texture of the earth?" he said.