TAIPEI (AFP) — For the past six months Wayne Hsu has been cycling 45 minutes to his office every day, which he says gets him off to an energetic start and, more importantly, slashes his monthly petrol bill.
Hsu, an airline sales representative in Taiwan's northern Taoyuan county, is among a growing number of people here opting for bikes over cars amid rising inflation and a slowing economy.
"Cycling is an inexpensive way to exercise and I've encouraged my colleagues and even my boss to follow my lead," he said.
The new-found devotion to cycling is a great boon for bicycle manufacturers on the island, which was once the world's leading exporter but has watched business fall since the mid-1990s due to dumping charges and relocations of factories to China where production costs are much lower.
China now is the world's major supplier of low-cost bicycles, while Taiwan retains its edge in high-end products such as racing-style, mountain and folding bikes with an average price tag of 222 US dollars, according to the economics ministry.
Exports reached a record high in 2007 of 1.05 billion US dollars with 4.75 million bikes sold abroad, while 2008 looks set to break that record with the export of 2.76 million bikes totalling 635 million US dollars in the first six months, government figures showed.
There is no official data on how many bicycles are sold locally but industry watchers estimate around one million were sold in 2007 on the island of 23 million people.
"Business was booming in 2007 and this year looks to be the best," said Jeffrey Sheu, spokesman for the world's leading bicycle maker Giant Inc.
"Our monthly revenue hit a historical high in August and September looks like setting a new record."
Giant's August and September group revenue rose 27 percent and 35 percent year-on-year to 3.91 billion and 4.12 billion Taiwan dollars (120 million US and 126 million US) respectively while 2008 revenue is projected to increase by at least 25 percent to 40 billion.
"Our staff are constantly working overtime to meet the ever-growing demand," said Sheu.
Orders have poured in for Giant products until mid-2009, prompting the addition of a new assembly line at its central Taichung base to boost annual production to one million bikes from the current 600,000. It is expected to be completed by year-end.
As inflation soars and financial markets tumble, Taiwan's bicycle manufacturers and other businesses catering to the thrifty are thriving as the public becomes increasingly eager to economise.
Pacific Cycles, a Taoyuan-based exporter, began selling its signature folding bikes at home in 2005, and since then they have become popular with city dwellers for their lightweight and convenient features.
"Our domestic sales are estimated to increase by 100 percent this year, compared with 10-30 percent in the past," despite a 66 percent price hike to 50,000 Taiwan dollars per bike, said marketing manager Max Yeh.
The folding bike, fondly dubbed "xiao che" in Mandarin or "little foldable" by fans, weighs around 10 kilograms (22 pounds).
The company, which produces 40,000 folding bikes annually in Taiwan, will soon unveil a second plant here to upgrade its product line, Yeh said.
Ed Lu, an avid fan of the folding bike in Taipei, said cycling to work helps him relax but he added that he'd prefer cleaner air for the ride.
"If more people start cycling instead of driving, we would be able to improve the air quality while reducing traffic jams," he said.
Lu reflects a growing environmental awareness that bicycle manufacturers say has contributed to the substantial sales growth in Taiwan.
"The public realise that driving less helps reduce air pollution to protect the environment against global warming," said Giant's Sheu.
Taiwan's government has also promised to expand cycling routes and facilities, in a bid to promote cycling as part of its "green policy" aimed at saving energy and reducing carbon emissions.
"The market is likely to peak this year... but cycling requires persistence and it is restricted by weather conditions," he said.
"We hope more people will cycle regularly as a way of life and not just do so because it's trendy."
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