By Ralph Jennings
The Taipei 101 building is seen beside a bicycle sign in downtown Taipei.
TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - Taiwan is rolling out Asia's first comprehensive bicycle tourism plan, including rentals, special railway cars and guides for rides down the rugged coastline or up the island's steep central mountains.
The tourism package, spearheaded by the government and private companies, lets cyclists rent bikes in one place and drop them off in another along the tropical, sparsely populated East Coast, where the government seeks to develop tourism.
Map-savvy tour guides on two-wheels show cyclists the roads, while Taiwan's flagship Giant Manufacturing rents bikes along popular routes and will expand to eight railway stations by the end of the year.
The railways were also tearing out seats in some trains to make space for cyclists headed to the East Coast.
"When you get off the train, you can rent a bike, whether it's an average bike or a high-level bike, whatever makes you happy," Taiwan transportation Minister Mao Chi-kuo recently told reporters at an event to promote tourism.
Though matched in Europe and North America, Taiwan is ahead of the pack in Asia, cycling authorities say.
To keep its lead, island President Ma Ying-jeou announced this month the government would spend more than $20 million (S$29 million) on a new network of bike paths.
Over the past two years, as fuel prices rose and keeping fit became trendier, East Coast cycling has gone from the odd loner braving speeding gravel trucks to group after organized group of cyclists who spend two or three days on the road.
Keen to compete with world-renowned Asian tourist destinations such as Thailand and Hong Kong, Taiwan's government has jumped on the trend, adding bike trips to tourism brochures.
"A lot of corporate executives have ridden our bikes," said Tsai Chia-chin, who runs a Giant rental outpost that works with tour guides to organize trips in the east coast's Rift Valley.
Giant has seen tourists from Hong Kong, mainland China and the United States, Tsai said.
"Riders who want a challenge will definitely do the steeper hills, and we will accommodate them," he said.
A self-guided Giant bike costs up to T$1,600 (S$72) per day. A three-day tour costs T$6,500.
Giant's Taiwan-based rival Merida Industry has rented bikes to east coast travelers for about five years, but riders must drop them off where they first rented them. Hostels along the east coast also rent bikes, often at no charge to guests.
"I'm from Los Angeles, and I think it would be great to bring more Americans over here and put them on bikes," said Mike Burton, 57, a cyclist teacher in the east coast city of Hualien.
"But Taiwan has an identity problem. I go back to Los Angeles and talk about it, and people think I mean Thailand."