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An Interview with Life of Taiwan Founder Mark Pemberton

Mark Pemberton, Life of Taiwan’s founder and managing director, was recently interviewed by a local English-language newspaper, Taipei Times (‘Expats play key role in boosting Taiwan’s tourism’, September 10, 2019). For reasons of space, the article didn’t include all of the original interview, which we now present here in its entirety:

Of the 11.07 million foreign visitors Taiwan received in 2018, only a small minority flew in from Western countries. However, long-haul markets are showing strong growth. While total arrivals increased by 3% compared to 2017, the number of visitors from the US rose by 3.3%, from Europe by 6.1%, and from Australia by 12.8%.

Taiwan-based foreign-born tourism professionals and entrepreneurs who’ve positioned themselves to serve the surging number of Western visitors are convinced of Taiwan’s appeal—even if they characterize official efforts to promote the country as flat-footed, or feel constrained by regulations.

In 2017, inbound tourists spent an average 6.39 nights in Taiwan, but those whose flights take more than six hours often stay longer, says Mark Pemberton. ‘Our clients tend to stay eight or nine days on the island, five or six of them touring, plus two or three before or after the tour for free time and self-guided travel. We often help our clients arrange activities and make the most of that solo time as part of our service, at no fee’.

‘Upward of 75 percent of our clients come from Western countries. I’d say another 10 percent are Westerners living in Asia. We also get a fair amount of Taiwanese-Americans doing homecoming trips’, he adds. Life of Taiwan’s website and advertising are currently 100 percent English.

‘At Life of Taiwan, we offer premium travel experiences to discerning travellers. That means you need to really understand what your clients want – authentic travel experiences through private tours that bring people into Taiwanese homes and culture rather than just going to the usual sightseeing locations’.

‘We need to really understand what our clients want, and our obvious advantage is understanding what service levels and standards international tourists expect’, says Pemberton, who hails from the south of England. ‘Local tour companies, it seems to me, focus too much on low prices, rather than really listening to their customers and curating tours to their needs. Being native English speakers gives us an advantage with regards to offering first-class service’.

Pemberton accumulated years of business experience in other fields before setting up Life of Taiwan in 2011. ‘Taiwan has a wonderfully free market which has always impressed and endeared me. We recently became a full member of the Taiwan Visitors Association, and have been welcomed and supported into the community’.

‘Taiwan has so much to offer, and I think the Tourism Bureau could do a better job of promoting the island at the international level. I would love for them to reach out to companies like ours so that we could assist in building campaigns. We know what appeals to Westerners. It’s the mountains, tea plantations, indigenous cultures, and heritage sites as much as it’s night markets or food’.

‘Also, we need to continue to internationalize the island. That said, there’s nothing wrong with Taiwanese people. We’ve had great reviews on TripAdvisor, but I always say these reviews are actually reviews of Taiwan. Taiwan is a five-star destination because of the people and their warmth!’

It’s sometimes said that Taiwanese hospitality isn’t quite matched by fluency in other languages. This is, of course, one reason why many travelers ask Life of Taiwan to arrange their guided tour of Taiwan. ‘We need to continue to internationalize the island’, says Pemberton. ‘There’s still a lot that can be done, and I’ll give you an example. In Tainan – where I’ve lived for 25 years – the flagship site is the Dutch fort in Anping. We take all our clients there. It’s beautiful and full of history, but a lot of the information in and around it is only in Chinese. This is a lost opportunity and a less than optimal user experience. We should address these easy and obvious wins’.

‘My last comment would be for the entire tourism sector to reduce single-use plastics. Offer your clients water flasks on arrival or encourage them to bring their own and stop the bottled water disaster. That’ll help keep our beaches and national parks plastic free. We all need to do our bit. Let’s keep Taiwan green!’