February 18, 2011 / 7:38 AM / in 7 years

Taiwan festivals play new role as tourism booster

TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - On a given signal the groups of four young men, each holding onto the ends of a bamboo sedan chair carrying an image of a local deity, leapt in turn into the chilly winter waters of a northern Taiwanese port.

<p>People get hit by firecrackers during the Yanshui Beehive Rockets Festival, as part of the Chinese Lantern Festival or "Yuan Xiao Jie", in Tainan County February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer</p>

Making their way back to land they then carried the sedan chairs barefoot across a bed of burning coal in the annual “harbor cleansing” festival at the port of Yehliu, seeking the protection of the deity for fishermen and residents.

The tradition began a century ago after a shipwreck in the area killed hundreds and locals took to having statues of the deity patrol the shore. But now, like many other festivals across Taiwan, it’s finding a new role in a more modern day need: increasing tourism.

“Today, we host this special harbor purification ritual, and combining this with our unique tourism attractions, I believe we will attract more tourists from Taiwan and abroad,” said Eric Chu, mayor of the New Taipei City district in which Yehliu is located.

Taiwan recently launched its latest tourism campaign under the slogan “Taiwan-The Heart of Asia,” that officials hope will become a vehicle for the development of a broad range of other industries, helping offset the island’s traditional reliance on hi-tech exports.

The new logo and slogan, the first change in 10 years, will be rolled out in an ad campaign in global media. Taiwan has already invited leading entertainers in Japan and a U.S. baseball team to Taiwan for other tourism promotion initiatives.

The most attention, though, is on mainland Chinese visitors.

Since Taiwan allowed in tour groups from its political rival in mid-2008, mainlanders have spent some $3 billion in Taiwan. Last year mainland tourists overtook those from Japan, which for decades had been Taiwan’s biggest source of visitors.

<p>Worshippers throw firecrackers at a shirtless man acting as Master Handan during the Handan ritual as part of the Chinese Lantern Festival celebrations or "Yuan Hsiao Jie" in Taitung February 17, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer</p>

The government is in talks to allow in individual mainland tourists, expected later this year, and a number of luxury hotel chains have opened new properties in Taiwan in anticipation, most recently W Hotels’ 405 room, 31-storey site close to Taipei 101, the world’s second-tallest building.

Tourism shares have been among the best performers over the past year, buoyed by hopes of an influx of visitors.

There will be plenty for those visitors to enjoy, especially on holiday occasions such as those seen during holiday times such as when the Lunar New Year festivities traditionally draw to a close on the fifteenth day of the new year. This year, that fell on Thursday.

Not to be outdone by the Yehliu men, in the eastern county of Taitung men volunteered to dress up as the god of wealth and have fireworks thrown at them. Getting burned shows strength and brings prosperity.

In the southern county of Tainan, towers of fireworks called “beehives” are set off in the middle of crowds of people, many of whom believe that the more fireworks hit their bodies, the more luck they will have.

Most however, prefer to stay alive to enjoy their luck, kitting themselves out in helmets, masks and heavy jackets.

For a more relaxing experience, the capital Taipei kicked off the island-wide, 12-day Lantern Festival on Feb 17, complete with performances from overseas dance groups.

The Tourism Bureau expects 6 million visitors, including 50,000 from overseas, during the festival.

Reporting by Christine Lu and Jonathan Standing, editing by Elaine Lies

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