TAIPEI – Taiwanese tour operators are gearing up for a rebound in cross-strait tourism, even though Taiwan has not lifted a ban on group tours to China amid tense geopolitical relations between Taipei and Beijing.
“The travel industry is very optimistic that tour groups can be sent to China soon,” said Mr Liu Chih-chiang, head of tour agency Best Original Travel Service.
This optimism stems from China’s announcement that it was allowing group tours from Taiwan to resume, starting from last Friday – three years after it clamped down on inbound travel due to Covid-19.
Major travel agencies such as Lion Travel and Richmond Tours have begun putting together group package itineraries to China, so that they can be ready for sign-ups once Taiwan’s travel ban is fully lifted.
Traditionally popular Chinese destinations, including Shanghai and Beijing, will likely be among the first to be offered, said Lion Travel.
However, as Taiwan still maintains a ban on residents travelling to China through group tours – also implemented because of the pandemic – Beijing’s recent announcement does not carry any practical significance yet.
And Taiwan is not lifting the ban until the two sides meet for talks, the island’s Tourism Bureau chief Chang Shi-chung told local reporters last Friday, adding that he hopes it will happen by the end of May.
Negotiations between the two sides should be done through the semi-official entities that handle cross-strait travel, he said, namely the Taiwan Strait Tourism Association and its Chinese counterpart, the Association for Tourism Exchange Across the Taiwan Straits.
“Cross-strait tourism must also resume on an equal footing and go both ways,” Mr Chang added at a press event, referring to China’s current ban on its own population visiting Taiwan.
In August 2019, Beijing banned individual travel permits for Chinese visitors to the island, citing the state of relations between the two sides. China’s unexpected move was widely seen as an attempt to hurt the chances of President Tsai Ing-wen from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party being re-elected in January 2020.
Later in 2020, China also banned its citizens from travelling to Taiwan in group tours, citing the pandemic.
The successive bans dealt a massive blow to Taiwan’s travel industry as Chinese tourists were its top customers, accounting for around a quarter of overseas visitors in 2018. Industry insiders estimated that Beijing’s measures cost Taiwan at least NT$28 billion (S$1.2 billion) in lost revenue over six months.
Today, South Koreans make up the biggest proportion of visitors to Taiwan – with 59,195 people arriving on the island in February – though overall tourism numbers are still around only one-third of those seen pre-pandemic. In 2019, Taiwan drew a record 11.8 million visitors from around the world.
“When mainland tourists used to come to Taiwan, they would typically stay for more than one week, and they would spend more money than the Japanese or South Korean tourists,” said Ms Luo Hsuan-hung, chairman of the Taipei City Travel Business Association.
Over in the Taiwanese archipelago of Kinmen, Madam Huang Mei-li, a local taxi driver and guide, certainly hopes to see the return of the big-spending tourists who used to visit her home town in droves via a 30-minute ferry ride from the Chinese city of Xiamen.
These ferry links were partially reopened earlier in 2023, but they were limited to Kinmen residents and their spouses.
“Business is so tough now. I can go for weeks without receiving any customers,” said the 62-year-old, adding that most of Kinmen’s tourist spots have been deserted in recent years.
But even as Taiwan’s tourism industry players are eager for the resumption of cross-strait travel, not all Taiwanese holidaymakers are so sure.
Several Taipei residents told The Straits Times they will “wait and see” how the political situation between the two sides unfolds before they decide if they want to go on holiday in China.
Last Thursday, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reminded Taiwanese to assess their personal risks before travelling to the mainland, given China’s “vague” laws surrounding national security.
In April, the detention of a Taiwan-based publisher in the mainland, who has released books critical of China’s ruling Communist Party, stoked concerns about Beijing’s arsenal of tactics to put pressure on Taiwan.
Associate Professor Huang Cheng-tsung of the tourism department at Taiwan’s Providence University told ST: “As the media has reported extensively on the geopolitical tensions in the region, it has affected how people feel about the other side.”