At the Taiwan International Boat Show, in March 2018, the island country showed its heavyweight-contender status in the international yacht building industry.
Two things stayed with me after a trip to Taiwan in March for the Taiwan International Boat Show (TIBS), now in its third year. The first was the seemingly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment I experienced while riding one of the country’s bullet trains, which was hurtling over the countryside at 186 miles per hour: a group of Buddhist monks practicing midday meditation in a temple courtyard, their brightly colored robes unmistakable in the hazy sunshine. The sight produced an arresting, we’re not in Kansas anymore feeling that I hadn’t had in some time—certainly not on a train.
The second thing that made an impression on me happened much more gradually. It was the dawning realization of just how many yachts are produced on an annual basis in Taiwan, an island country roughly a third of the size of Ohio. (One hundred and sixty two yachts were exported in 2017.) The country’s largest yacht companies first came onto the scene in the ’80s, and after weathering a few financial downturns, Taiwan has returned to its heavyweight-contender status in the international marine industry, cementing itself as the biggest yacht manufacturer in Asia.
I was one of more than 20,000 visitors to descend on Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan to attend the show, where an impressive number of yachts manufactured in the area were on display. Typically, this formula is reversed: As the world’s fourth largest producer of yachts measuring 78 feet in length and up—behind Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey—yachts pour out of Taiwan to customers all around the world, with the U.S. its largest market by most measures.
Kaohsiung itself—a massive industrial port city and the country’s second-largest urban area behind Taipei—is home to 22 of the 36 pleasure-boat builders in Taiwan, and accounts for more than 80 percent of the country’s total output of boats, according to the Taiwan Yacht Industry Association. Those builders include brands such as Ocean Alexander, Horizon, Outer Reef, Nordhavn, Kadey-Krogen and Fleming, among many others.
Kaohsiung is southeast Asia’s hub for boat builders, experts and artisans. To find the pulse of the yachting industry in Taiwan, I knew I had to travel there.
In addition to attending the show, I visited a number of yards. A trip to Fleming’s Tung Hwa yard, just outside of downtown Kaohsiung, revealed the builder’s commitment to the use of Burmese teak. Here, the company employs skilled craftsmen and women. Fleming’s workforce numbers just over 200, and those artisans create everything from stainless railings to cabinetry, all built and installed on-site.
Back at the Kaohsiung Exhibition Center—an on-the-water exhibit hall with an undulating, shellfish-like exterior—Horizon and Ocean Alexander had a prodigious presence. As two of the largest yacht manufacturers in Taiwan, they generate the lion’s share of the country’s yacht-building revenue. Both companies continue to invest in the production of increasingly larger, more luxurious cruising yachts, with Ocean Alexander’s newest model, the 90R, scheduled to debut in October 2018 (see more here).
Horizon recently added a new FD87 to its Fast Displacement series, and has hinted at the launch of a new FD122 in the not-so-distant future.
While those large pleasure yachts are aimed at international buyers, many exhibitors at TIBS seemed to be focused on finding ways to inspire the local populace to take up boating—a sport that, until recently, wasn’t considered to be a part of the Taiwanese culture. “Horizon has seen increased success in the local market,” wrote John Lu, CEO of Horizon Yachts when I asked about it. “We understand that it might take more than a decade to fully develop a marine leisure culture, but Taiwan is definitely on the right track and the future is looking bright.”
While recreational boating is in the early stages of catching on in Taiwan, the country’s yacht building culture is undeniable. The piles of teak logs on their way to be crafted, by hand, into the most coveted yachts in the world, many bound for our shores was a sight I won’t soon forget.