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Think of Taiwan and the first thing that will spring to mind is probably the ‘Made in Taiwan’ labels attached to so many clothes purchased in the Western world, which will have no doubt contributed to the perception of Taiwan as some industrial landscape defined by hundreds of factories and warehouses, and precious little else to offer visitors. Taiwan might have been known as one of the ‘tiger’ economies of Asia, but few people, until recently at least, thought of this small island off the southeast coast of China as a potential tourist destination.

Formerly called ‘Formosa’ (Portuguese for ‘beautiful’), Taiwan was originally inhabited by mainland Chinese until the 17th century, before being occupied by the Dutch and Spanish for a while. It then fell under Chinese rule again for a couple of centuries, before being occupied by the Japanese from 1895 until the end of WW2.

The Chinese Civil War, which had already been in progress for some years, came to a head in 1948. The nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek were defeated by Mao's Communists, and the nationalist leadership, along with thousands of supporters, fled to Taiwan. Here, their political vehicle, the Kuo Min-Tang (KMT) rapidly came to dominate Taiwanese politics. The KMT was spectacularly successful at developing the economy and, in less than a century, Taiwan made a successful transition from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial one. In March 2000, however, the main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), gained control of the presidency through its candidate Chen Shui-Bian, and for the first time, the KMT was completely excluded from political power.

For all practical purposes, Taiwan has been independent for half a century, but the fledgling democracy is still regarded by China as a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland. The political issue of its relationship with China remains a sticking point in international relations, with both sides prone to exchanging rhetoric and political point-scoring on a regular basis. More than 700 Chinese missiles are aimed at the island but the military threat is partly offset by the pivotal relationship between Taipei and Washington (the US, which has no diplomatic ties with Taiwan, is nevertheless the main provider of arms to the island - one of the world's big arms purchasers).

2004 was the Year of Tourism in Taiwan and, since then, the country has focused on promoting its historical and cultural treasures in a bid to attract more tourists. Taiwan certainly has plenty to offer, from truly unique scenery to exciting sporting activities and colorful festivals, not to mention the most varied Chinese food on earth (Taipei is a gourmet's paradise, boasting cuisine from every region of China). Boutique hotels and trendy bars have sprung up in a flurry of construction, which culminated in the opening of the ‘world's tallest building’, Taipei 101.

Taiwan is relatively small (only a little over half of Sri Lanka's size), but its population numbers almost 23 million, making its population density second only to Bangladesh. A gateway to the massive Chinese market, it has a strong relationship with the West and is keen to increase links with Europe.

Taiwan (China) is the main island of a group of 86 islands. It is dominated by the Central Mountain Range covering 69 per cent of its land area and running its full length north to south on the eastern seaboard. Over 200 peaks exceed 3000m (9850ft), the highest being Yu Shan (Jade Mountain) at 3952m (13,042ft), and most are heavily forested. About 31 per cent of the country is alluvial plain, most of it on the coastal strip. The Pescadores (Fisherman's Isles), which the Chinese call Penghu, comprise 64 islands west of Taiwan (China, PR) with a total area of 127 sq km (49 sq miles). The offshore island fortress of Quemoy (Kinmen) and Matsu forms part of the mainland province of Fukien.

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