Taiwanese travel firms feel the pinch with fewer Chinese tourists

Guards marching at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei - a sight that attracts many visitors. Besides a drop in Chinese tourist numbers, a check with tour agencies in Taiwan found that the Chinese are also spending much less.
Guards marching at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei - a sight that attracts many visitors. Besides a drop in Chinese tourist numbers, a check with tour agencies in Taiwan found that the Chinese are also spending much less.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Many forced to adapt as Beijing puts pressure on pro-independence leaderTsai Ing-wen

More mainland Chinese tourists are giving Taiwan a miss, and those who visit are spending a lot less.

Indeed, only less than half of last year's total number of Chinese tourists - 4.1 million - are expected this year.

All has not been rosy for Taiwan's tourism industry since independence-leaning President Tsai Ing- wen was sworn in on May 20. Since then, the total number of Chinese visitors to Taiwan has fallen 22.3 per cent, according to Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

The only bright spot in the same period is a 2.9 per cent increase in independent travellers, that is, those who do not travel as part of a tour group.

Mr Lin Wei-yang, 59, a tour operator who has been catering to mainland Chinese tourists since 2002, probably spoke for all his fellow tour operators when he said: "This is one of the worst times I have seen."

To avoid having to lay off staff, Mr Lin, general manager of Anson Travel Services, said he is focusing on offering free-and-easy packages - such as hiking trips in the mountainous Alishan region and farm stays in western Taiwan's Miaoli region - that appeal to younger, independent travellers.

Like Mr Lin, other tour operators also find themselves forced to make changes, such as tweaking itineraries to offer niche experiences and training their sights on catering to the growing segment of independent travellers.

  • 22.3  Percentage by which the total number of Chinese visitors to Taiwan has fallen since independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in on May 20, according to Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

TERRIBLE TIME

This is one of the worst times I have seen.

MR LIN WEI-YANG, a travel operator who has been catering to mainland Chinese tourists since 2002.

LOOKING ELSEWHERE WON'T HELP

No matter how hard we try to attract more visitors from other countries, they will not make up for the declining mainland visitor numbers.

TAIPEI BAKERY ASSOCIATION DIRECTOR WU GUAN-DE

  • Triple threat to tour operators

  • FEWER MAINLAND CHINESE ARRIVALS

    The total number of Chinese visitors to Taiwan has fallen 22.3 per cent since President Tsai Ing-wen took office on May 20. Travellers in tour groups fell 38.9 per cent.

    Independent travellers, however, chalked up a 2.9 per cent increase, according to Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

    In June, the total number fell 11 per cent year on year to 271,000, the lowest in 30 months, Taiwan's tourism bureau data showed.

    With Beijing expected to cut cross-strait quotas, the total number of mainland Chinese tourists is estimated to fall to under two million this year, down from 4.1 million last year.


    TOURISTS TIGHTENING PURSE STRINGS

    A visitor used to spend at least NT$30,000 (S$1,300) on a seven-day trip. These days, it is barely NT$10,000 for a similar trip.

    Statistics show a decrease in the number of Chinese tourists will translate into losses of NT$2.04 billion a month.


    SPOOKED BY LAX SAFETY

    A tour bus taking mainland Chinese tourists to the airport for their flight home caught fire and crashed on July 19. All on board - 24 mainland Chinese and two Taiwanese - were killed, sparking questions about Taiwan's safety culture. Investigators found that the bus driver was drunk.

    Jermyn Chow

Still, at least 50 of the 400 tour agencies that cater to mainland Chinese tourists are said to be downsizing to cut overheads.

It is not just tour operators feeling the effects of dwindling mainland Chinese arrivals, but also hotels and shops selling Taiwanese snacks such as pineapple shortcakes.

The current situation is a far cry from that between last November and February this year, when up to 16,000 Chinese tourists came to Taiwan daily. It was one of the highest numbers of mainland visitor arrivals since Taiwan opened up to mainland Chinese tour groups in 2008.

But after Ms Tsai won the presidential election in January, Beijing reportedly cut its quota in March, allowing only 10,000 to travel to Taiwan a day.

To put pressure on Ms Tsai, Beijing is reportedly further cutting cross-strait travel quotas for tour groups and independent travellers.

Currently, up to 150,000 Taiwan- bound tourists in each segment are allowed to travel to Taiwan every month.

According to Taiwan's United Evening News, Beijing is expected to slash the quota to only 37,500 as early as next month.

Besides a drop in Chinese tourist numbers, a check with tour agencies here found that the Chinese are also spending much less. While each tourist used to spend NT$30,000 (S$1,300) on a seven- day trip, these days, it is likely to be no more than NT$10,000.

Statistics show that a drop in Chinese tourist numbers could translate into monthly losses of NT$2.04 billion. Already, a travel agency was forced to shut down last month. And tour agents are warning that more will go belly up if nothing is done.

Transport Minister Hochen Tan, who also oversees Taiwan's Tourism Bureau, sought last Wednesday to quell fears that the tourism industry was heading for a slump. One way tour operators and businesses can help themselves is to look elsewhere, such as South-east Asia, South Korea and Japan, he said.

But many have said the returns will not be as good, given that Chinese tourists are among the biggest spenders. Last year, a mainland visitor spent about US$220 (S$300) a day, similar to his Japanese counterpart, while South-east Asian tourists spent about US$150.

Taipei Bakery Association director Wu Guan-de said: "No matter how hard we try to attract more visitors from other countries, they will not make up for the declining mainland visitor numbers."

To make their voices heard, thousands of Taiwan's tour operators are planning a street protest next Monday to call for government measures to revive cross-strait travel.

Mr Jonathan Pan, a manager at Stone Travel Agency, hopes the government can assure mainland tourists who might be spooked by the political instability in Taiwan, as well as the crash of a tour bus on July 19 that killed all 24 mainland Chinese tourists on board and two Taiwanese. "Taiwan's reputation is so bad now that people feel it's safer to avoid the place."

On its part, the Tourism Bureau is seeking to meet its Chinese counterpart "as soon as possible", said its international affairs division director Eric Lin, adding that both sides last met before Ms Tsai's inauguration.

A group of tour agents are also looking to head to Beijing and Shanghai to meet their counterparts and promote new packages.

Mr Lin said: "We want to give people peace of mind and show them that Taiwan is still the place where they can enjoy themselves."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'Taiwanese travel firms feel the pinch with fewer Chinese tourists'. Print Edition | Subscribe