More than 200 tour buses and 400 drivers clogged Taipei's major roads yesterday in protest over the government's new stringent rules for the tour bus industry, causing massive jams for about three hours.
The protesters from the New Taipei City Tour Bus Drivers' Union parked their buses in Renai and Xinyi roads in central Taipei in the morning and then gathered outside the Ministry of Transport and Communication, waving large banners.
They demanded that the government relax what they say are harsh restrictions imposed on the industry after 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 mainlanders and two Taiwanese nationals - were killed.
The protesters want the government to lift restrictions on the age of bus fleets and to dispel fears that the vehicles are unsafe because they were assembled locally from new and used parts. "We just want to survive... We are just protecting our rice bowl," they shouted.
Tensions were defused by noon after an hour-long meeting between union chairman Li Shih-jia and the Transport Ministry's motor vehicle division director Lin Fu-shan.
Mr Lin agreed to canvass the views of union members during the ministry's review of the regulations.
Mr Li called for transparency in the process. "The government cannot make any policy decisions by just listening to scholars and civil servants, but must listen to us because it affects us," he said.
The show of force came as Taiwan's tourism industry is bracing itself for a slump, with the number of mainland Chinese tourists, about 40 per cent of annual tourist arrivals, expected to fall.
The tourism industry, with a total of 10.4 million arrivals annually, makes up nearly 4 per cent of the island's gross domestic product.
Beijing is reportedly cutting the cross-strait travel quota to put pressure on the government of President Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.
Last month, some 300,000 mainland Chinese tourists visited Taiwan, down 15 per cent from the same period last year.
Tourist arrivals in May and June also fell, by about 12 per cent from last year.
Yesterday's protest came a day after a travel agency that caters to mainland Chinese visitors shut down. It was the first travel agency to be affected by the drop in mainland tourists.
Tens of thousands of Taiwan's tourism operators are planning a street protest on Sept 8 to call for government measures to revive cross-strait travel, said Mr Hsu Gao-ching, a former secretary-general of the Travel Agent Association. "It's just the beginning, and definitely will not be the end... It is a warning of more problems."