“Six for 300! Buy 12 get one free!” A crowd of women clusters around a stall at Dongmen morning market in central Taipei perusing the assorted undergarments. The vendor keeps up the salesman’s patter extolling the virtues of his apparel, every bit the image of an experienced market trader. But he has only done the job for a few months since his regular industry — Taiwan’s overseas travel industry — all but collapsed in the face of Covid-19.

Traditional travel agencies in Taiwan usually deal with a ratio of around 80% overseas travel to 20% domestic, so the effective suspension of overseas group tourism, which has been in place since the end of April, hit the sector hard. Taiwan’s central bank reported outbound travel plunging by 98.9% in the second quarter of the year. Accordingly, many agencies are closing high street stores and sales staff are resigning as commissions dry up. On November 7, Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung forecast that the situation would not return to normal until late 2021. With the market looking glum many in the industry have been forced to rethink their careers.

The 27-year-old market vendor, who gave his name only as Mark, led Taiwanese tour groups around Turkey until last March. As international travel plummeted he and his girlfriend, who worked in the same industry, were furloughed. Quickly realizing that the international tour industry would be slow to recover they turned to a time-honored Taiwan vocation — selling goods in the local markets.

The work is hard. The couple must get up at 4 a.m. to drive to collect the stock from the supply company and then on to one of several markets in the north of Taiwan to trade for the morning. The most successful vendor from the previous day gets the plum pick of the stands the company has reserved. However, the rewards are high. In a good month, the couple pulls in a combined income of NT$300,000 (US$10,633).

Mark says he believes it is unlikely that the outbound travel sector will recover anytime soon.

“We will do this work for a year, maybe two. Until we can save up enough to put down a 50% deposit on a house,” says Mark. “And then we will settle down and find a regular job, one where we have time to raise a family.”


Photo Credit: Cat Thomas

Workers dismantle the signage on a vacated Lion Travel branch on Xinyi Road, Taipei, September 26, 2020.

Working the markets has been a staple of Taiwanese life for many years. While it may be associated with the working class, many white-collar workers in Taiwan grew up in families that made sizable tax-free incomes running stalls in the popular day and night markets across the country. “Ask any of the longtime vendors here,” says Mark. “They may look like humble traders, but many of them own several houses in the area which they brought when property prices were lower.”

Although Mark misses his old job, he acknowledges that he is lucky. Unlike many countries, day to day life in Taiwan is largely unaffected by Covid-19 with over 200 days having passed without a domestically transmitted case recorded. Were he in the same industry elsewhere he wouldn’t have been able to pick up such a lucrative trade at the drop of a hat.

“I’m young,” says Mark. “I have the energy to restart and deal with the odd working hours. Others, especially the older tour leaders, don’t have that. Some of them are struggling to get by on the government monthly subsidies.”

Others have decided to refocus on domestic tourism. Travel restrictions put the kibosh on cheap packages and flights to nearby destinations such as Okinawa or Hong Kong, so many Taiwanese are spending their dollars rediscovering Taiwan’s delights.

Joseph Tseng, 32, who worked in sales and led overseas tours for Luxury Holiday (友泰旅遊), was perhaps better prepared than others in his field for the disruption of Covid-19. In 2019 he branched out into the domestic market, setting up a small company with a friend running YouBike cycling tours of the historic Dadaocheng neighborhood in Taipei.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Joseph Tseng

Joseph Tseng

While on what turned out to be his last tour to Turkey in early March, Tseng noticed people stocking up on face masks, which at the time were being rationed in Taiwan. A few days after his return the government effectively suspended outbound group tours until further notice.

Faced with reduced working hours which left him with a base salary of just NT$22,000 (US$771), and with a large part of his income from customer tips — which could net him around NT$80,000 (US$ 2804) a tour— gone, Tseng went all-in on refocusing his skills. He joined the Redefining Tourism Mixer association (RTM泛旅遊協會), a group which aims to revamp the domestic market through an innovative approach to tourism.

Describing the challenges of working in the domestic market Tseng says there was more money in overseas package tours.

“Taiwanese people like the ease [of all-inclusive overseas trips],” he says. “In Taiwan, prices are cheap, lots of families have their own vehicle, and there is no language barrier, so people prefer to travel independently.”

Another challenge is getting local tourists to rethink their idea of domestic travel. “There’s a tendency for Taiwanese to think other countries have more to offer, especially in terms of history,” explains Tseng. “Actually, Taiwan has plenty of culture, Hakka culture, Indigenous culture, mountain and sea areas. Of course, it is not on the same scale as, for example, America, but wherever you want to go to it’s pretty convenient.”

Tseng believes there is room to develop sustainable travel experiences, sold to independent travelers through platforms such as Klook.

Tseng’s efforts have paid off. In late October, he landed an eight-month contract to develop sustainable tourism in Pingtung. Initiatives include a class on turtle conservation followed by an afternoon of snorkeling to see the animals in the wild on Xiaoliuqiu.

According to Tseng, of the 100 or so employees at his former company, only around 20 remain and the company has branched out from the tour business, taking advantage of their large database of customers to focus on general sales such as imported health products from Switzerland.

Some other traditional agencies, such as major market player Lion Travel (雄獅旅遊), have decided to weather the lull by opening restaurants or drinks shops, and have offered their employees alternative employment accordingly. However, as Tseng notes, not everyone is happy to make such a switch. He estimates 60-80% of them have switched to another industry altogether.

“Some took up the government scheme of retraining classes for the online travel industry and got [a stipend of] NT$18,000,” says Tseng. “But it’s not enough. It’s hard to survive on that. People don’t want lessons, they need money.”

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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