TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - Alan Chen and his fiancee Chan Mei-ling of Hong Kong are spending almost $3,000 plus travel expenses on a three-day visit to Taiwan for something they could have done at home: get their wedding photos taken.
The 30-year-old groom and 27-year-old bride, like thousands of couples from overseas, have picked Taiwan for scenic, posed pre-wedding photos, which are traditional for ethnic Chinese worldwide, because of the island's mountain and coastal scenery.
"I have a lot of friends who came here to take photos, as Taiwan is supposed to be pretty," Chen said as he and his fiancee examined outfits this week at a Taipei studio that would take them to a backdrop along the hilly north coast a day later.
"It's the same price as in Hong Kong, you just add airfare and a hotel," Chen said.
Hong Kong couples make up half of the 250 brides and grooms who tourism officials say come to Taiwan every month for photos, taking advantage of 1,300 business-hungry studios that provide clothes, flowers, album covers and transportation to venues.
Others come from Malaysia, Singapore and Chinese communities in the United States.
Taiwan's wedding photo industry, which has done promotions at exhibitions overseas since 2005, reported revenues of about $300 million in 2006, according to the government-run Taiwan Journal.
If Taiwan opens to Chinese tourists, most of whom are now kept out due to visa overstay fears and political security concerns, businesses expect a surge in demand for photos.
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island.
Beijing has threatened to use force against the island, if necessary, further chilling relations.
But the Taipei-based Saromant International Wedding Photo Group chain will signed with a Beijing firm next month to send about 5,000 couples from China for wedding photos pending a broader tourism agreement, said Saromant CEO Celine Liu.
China and Taiwan are expected to begin negotiating the broad agreement in June.
"Without mainland China tourists, this business is getting harder and harder," Liu said. "Due to the economy, Taiwan people want to spend increasingly little money on photos."
Wedding tourists can choose coniferous forests in the Yangmingshan mountain range, ocean cliff sunsets and old Chinese architecture as backdrops. Prices average T$50,000 to T$60,000 (about $1,500 to $2,000) for photo packages.
"Taiwan is not a big region, but its variety is huge," said Chao Kwang-shoung, international affairs deputy director with the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. "We've got natural landscapes."
But studio operators say Hong Kong couples are finding comparable scenery across their border on the south coast of mainland China, while Chinese can get cheaper photos at home.
"In the short run, I don't have such a rosy outlook (on China)," said Lee Fang-chi, assistant manager at True Love Photo Wedding in Taipei, where six in seven clients are from Taiwan. "Our service industry won't open so fast."
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)