Tourism is latest flashpoint between China and Taiwan

Both sides blaming each other for fall in number of Chinese tourists visiting island

TAIPEI • China and Taiwan have added tourism to their bones of contention since the pro-independence opposition swept to power in January elections, trading accusations about who is to blame for a decline in Chinese visitors to the self-ruled island.

Beijing has made no secret of its dislike for incoming president Tsai Ing-wen, who takes office on May 20, and for her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has traditionally favoured independence.

Since the polls, Taiwan has accused China of effectively kidnapping its citizens from Kenya on suspicion of involvement in fraud, and reacted angrily to China casting doubt on its observer status at the World Health Organisation.

A woman displays gold and silver coins showing the portraits of incoming president Tsai Ing-wen and vice-president Chen Chien. Beijing has made clear its dislike for the pro-independence Ms Tsai. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Now the Chinese tourists who visit Taiwan - 4.2 million last year - have become the focus of discord.

The number fell 10 per cent month-on-month to 363,878 in March, according to Taiwan's Tourism Bureau. That is still up on the number a year ago, but those who service the visitors, including bus firms that shuttle tour groups around, say they are feeling the pinch.

"Chinese tourists took about 4,000 tour buses a month around this time last year, but now it's only 2,800," said Mr Lu Shiao-ya, chief of the National Joint Association of Tourist Buses.

  • Recent discord

    On March 17, Beijing established diplomatic ties with a former Taiwanese ally in Africa, Gambia, ending an unofficial diplomatic truce between the two sides.

    Last month, Taiwanese telecom fraud suspects were repatriated from Malaysia and Kenya to the Chinese mainland. Taiwan slammed the deportations as kidnappings. Beijing said the suspects should be deported to the mainland as most of the fraud victims are mainlanders.

    Last weekend, Taiwan accused China of political interference after a long-awaited invitation for Taiwan to attend the World Health Assembly as an observer came with a mention of the "one-China" principle. The incoming Tsai Ing-wen administration accepted the invitation but distanced itself from the mention.

"China is using its tourists as a bargaining chip against Taiwan's new government."

If Ms Tsai's inauguration speech next week upsets Beijing, which still claims the island as its territory, many fear China could really turn the screws on tourist numbers.

"This kind of political interference would result only in hurt feelings for people on either side of the Taiwan Strait," said Mr Tung Chen- yuan, spokesman for Taiwan's incoming government.

The travel industry is nervous. "Everyone is waiting to see how China will react to the inauguration speech," said Mr Golden Kou, a vice-president of EVA Airways, Taiwan's second-largest carrier.

Two mainland tour agents said they had been told to restrict the numbers they send to Taiwan since the elections.

"The National Tourism Administration told us in February and March to cut the number of tourists we send to Taiwan," an agent who asked to be identified only as Chen in the coastal city of Xiamen, which lies across the strait from Taiwan, told Reuters.

An agent in Guangdong province, who gave his family name as Kuang, said the Chinese were "still fascinated with Taiwan", but Beijing had cut the numbers allowed to visit.

A Beijing source with knowledge of China's policy on Taiwan tourism said there had been technical problems in some provinces, including Henan, which ran out of application forms for Taiwan tourist permits.

Chinese state media puts the blame on Taiwan. This week, the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily said Taiwan's fiddling with the quota system was causing the fall in numbers.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2016, with the headline Tourism is latest flashpoint between China and Taiwan. Subscribe