Inside a large, open-floor exhibit space within Taiwan's Lukang Township, glass sparkles at every turn. There's a glass-covered atrium that creates a kaleidoscope of colors as you walk through; tall, freestanding glass mirrors that offer Instagram-ready funhouse photo opportunities; and a series of stunning glass artworks—including an intricate stained-glass flower and a glass Buddha portrait with a headdress of hanging glass beads. But this isn't just a regular art installation, it's a new kind of product showroom designed to transform a traditional glass factory into a tourist destination, one that drew more than 1.3 million visitors last year.
“Tourism factories” are working factories that have added tourism components—things like museum exhibits, souvenir stores, and DIY workshops—to help keep their businesses afloat. Taiwan's Ministry of Economic Affairs conceived of the idea back in 2003, and today there are roughly 136 certified tourism factories spread across the island. There are tourism factories devoted to mochi making, ribbon weaving, saxophone production, cosmetics, dietary supplements, socks, erasers, umbrellas, tea, chocolate, lanterns, soy sauce...and the industry only continues to grow.
Taiwan has a long history of manufacturing, from food and beverage to semiconductors—the island's flagship industry. In the 1980s it had even earned the nickname, “Bicycling Kingdom,” for producing more bikes than anywhere else in the world. But by the 1990s China and other Asian countries were giving the island's industries a literal run for their money, and many of their factories were in peril.
“It became difficult for Taiwan's factories and businesses to keep up with changing business trends,” says Brad Shih, Director of Taiwan's Tourism Bureau in Los Angeles, “so the Ministry of Economic Affairs came up with the idea of tourism factories as a way for them to stay relevant.”
“For example,” says Cathy Hung, Deputy Director at the LA Tourism Bureau, “Shing Long Textile is a famous towel factory that now educates visitors on how they create their textiles, while simultaneously encouraging them to see the environmental benefits of reuse. The factory also hosts DIY classes for visitors to create bring-home souvenirs.”
To become an official tourism factory, Taiwan's manufacturers first apply with Taiwan's government-supported Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), which helps transform the island's industries into innovative-driven assets. Once a factory is approved, the ITRI then works alongside them to create a tourism-friendly experience, developing dedicated exhibits and immersive activities that are both interesting and educational. One of their biggest roles comes in training craftspeople to explain their factory's process in a way visitors can understand. While the process requires a substantial upfront investment, it can pay off. According to ITRI, tourism factories attacted more than 22 million visitors last year and brought in a record-high $149.2 million USD in 2016, up 15% from the previous year.
“By incorporating tourism into the mix, many of our factories have gained a second life,” says Dr. Chia-Szu Wen, a specialist with the Tourism Bureau's Ministry of Transportation and Communications. She believes that part of the allure for visitors is the changing way we view industry. “Most people are no longer interested in simply consuming products,” she says, “but also learning about how they're produced and the stories behind them.”
Taiwan's 100-plus tourism factories are separated into five main categories: Art & Culture, Daily Necessities, Health & Beauty, Home Life and Wine & Fine Foods—with each factory offering its own unique theme and experience. Though no all tourism factories offer English translations, Taiwan's government has been drawing special attention (mostly through international tourism campaigns) to those that do. These include the Sha Yang Ye Robot Wonderland Pavilion and the Kuo Yuan Ye Museum of Cake and Pastry—both of them in Taoyuan City in the country's north—and Tainan's Taiwan Metal Creation Museum in the south.
Overall, says Shih, tourism factories are not only adding to the longevity of Taiwan's manufacturers, but also “by fusing Taiwan's rich traditional culture with its economic industries,” creating a unique type of attraction. Here are nine of Taiwan's Tourism Factories not to miss:
Paint your own paper lanterns, view traditional lanterns in various styles and shapes, and see how this unique part of Taiwanese culture is produced.
Execute the movement of robots using body sensory equipment, see the prize-winning Taiwan Victory Black Bear robot – made using 17 pieces of powerful metal gears – and discover the history of robot evolution.
Play various musical instruments ranging from harmonicas to flutes, and tour a working piano factory to experience just what goes into manufacturing a piano.
Journey on a nostalgic trip back through 100 years of Taiwan's pastry culture, learn about its role in Taiwanese weddings and festivals and give your baking skills a go in the DIY “Pastry Play Room.”
Taiwan Foot Shoes Health Knowledge Museum:
At this factory in Ilan, visitors learn how insoles can help with everything from diabetic foot pain to muscle fatigue in sports.
Meiya Furniture Sightseeing Factory:
This Tainan' factory boasts a guided sensory walk-through that includes both the fresh scent of wood chips and a class in determining the strength of a wood species by sound.
Taiwan Balloon Museum:
See how balloons are produced in Taichung City; then twist them into animal shapes.
Food Happiness Factory:
After observing the process of transforming Chi Mei's baked goods from raw ingredients into finished products, the company's Tainan-based factory provides a chance to make some 'happiness' of your own through DIY dumplings, biscuits and pineapple cakes.
Taiwan Glass Gallery:
Taiwan's most popular tourism factory, the working glass-making museum is located within Changhua Coastal Industrial Park. In addition to the glass fun mirrors and art exhibits, visitors can enjoy several DIY opportunities, including using colorful beads to decorate glassware and glassblowing, with assistance from onsite craftspeople.