Friday, February 1, 2013

Homes away from home (Taiwan Review)

When Charlies Liu quit his civil service job with the Kaohsiung City Government and returned to the place where he grew up so he could be with his ailing mother, he did not think he would soon be embarking on a new career in the tourism industry, and that within a decade he would have hosted visitors from more than 40 countries.

In November 2003, on land that has belonged to his family for more than 80 years, Liu opened Small Swiss Homestay, a lodging establishment with four rooms and mountain views. Located in a tea-growing district in Chiayi County, southern Taiwan, not far from Alishan National Forest Recreation Area, Small Swiss Homestay is in many ways a typical minsu, as bed-and-breakfast (B&B) establishments are known in Chinese.

Over the past decade, Taiwan’s tourism industry has transformed significantly. Perhaps few of the changes have enhanced the travel experience more than the proliferation of minsu. In these small lodges, guests can stay in a family-run establishment and enjoy a blend of informal hospitality, local knowledge and natural scenery that few hotels can match. Liu, for instance, takes many of his guests to Fenqihu, a nearby town famous for its quaint character, and Yushan National Park, where they can see Taiwan’s highest peak.

Until December 2001, when the Regulations for the Management of Home Stay Facilities were issued, minsu existed without a legal framework. The regulations define “a home stay facility” as “a lodging facility run as a family sideline business, using the spare rooms of a self-used residence to provide tourists with a rural living experience.” 

In practice, while many homestay businesses match these criteria closely, quite a number are purpose-built accommodations that provide the family’s main source of income. Most of these latter establishments are fairly modest, though, and retain the personalized service of a family-run business. The rules state that such operations should have “no more than five guest rooms, with a total floor area of no more than 150 square meters,” although local governments can authorize up to 15 rooms for homestays with “specific tourism features” such as those located on a tourist farm or in a remote area.

To be licensed, a B&B must satisfy fire safety rules and undergo inspections that check, among other things, whether each “guest room and bathroom [has] adequate ventilation and ... sufficient light,” according to the website of the Tourism Bureau under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. Operators must purchase insurance, and cannot be individuals with convictions for drug, firearm-related, sexual or other serious criminal offenses.

Since the regulations came into force, the number of fully licensed establishments has been growing nonstop. According to statistics issued by the Tourism Bureau, new minsu registered with the authorities at a rate of more than one per day between 2004 and 2008.

“At the end of September 2012, the national total of legal B&Bs was 3,619,” says Chen Yu-chuan, director of the bureau’s Hotel Inspection and Supervision Center. This central government unit oversees Taiwan’s homestay industry, but local governments are responsible for day-to-day enforcement. “City and county governments do from time to time, in accordance with the provisions, carry out inspections of B&Bs,” Chen says, adding that violations, such as a lack of firefighting equipment, are dealt with as dictated by the law.

“The Tourism Bureau offers operators of legal B&Bs guidance so they can upgrade their services. The bureau has also held many business management classes, and granted money to local governments and industry associations so they can organize workshops,” Chen says... 

The entire article, which appears in the February edition of Taiwan Review, can be read online

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