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China and Taiwan: From free trade to free travel

One sector that is not often mentioned in conjunction with China's economic growth is tourism. Recently, Taiwan and China signed their largest free trade agreement ever and now there is talk of a "free travel" agreement.

Regular flights between the mainland and Taiwan were launched in 2008 as part of a warming-up of relations

Regular flights between the mainland and Taiwan were launched in 2008 as part of a warming-up of relations

Citizens from mainland China have been allowed to travel to Taiwan since 2008, but only on designated group tours and after tedious application and selection procedures. Negotiations about "ziyouxing" or "free travel" are now underway – this would allow tourists to come to Taiwan on their own.

Wu Zhengde from Taiwan's Providence University says this could be possible as early as next year, but that it will start off as a trial run. "In this concept there is also the question of numbers. How many people are there and what are the capacities? And that is exactly the problem China is dealing with now. We just have to work on the details and see if the existing structure will suffice."

Tourists love to visit Taipei 101, one of the world's tallest skyscrapers

Tourists love to visit Taipei 101, one of the world's tallest skyscrapers

Wu believes both economies would benefit greatly from free travel, especially because an increasing number of people from the People’s Republic want to travel to Taiwan.

Tourism to Taiwan is increasing by the day

Last year, the average number of mainland Chinese traveling to Taiwan each day was a little over 1,100. In the first half of 2010 alone, that number went up to 3,400.

With around 1.2 million visitors this year already, tourists from the Chinese mainland constitute the largest chunk of Taiwan's tourism. Numbers will only grow when tourists are not restricted to group travel.

But some, such as Ru Hongjin, believe this is a dangerous development. He is currently running a survey for Taiwan's Tourism Bureau and thinks this is a further device China could use to bully Taiwan at will.

"It will damage the economy. We can't treat China like any other country because other countries don't have such a complex relationship with Taiwan. They will try to use the economy for their political purposes," he says.

Ru is also worried that China is mainly concerned with making a good impression on Taiwan but Alice Chen, a deputy director at the Tourism Bureau, does not see it that way.

Tourism can enhance communication

She feels the main goal of tourism is to enhance communication and sees China's interest in Taiwan as genuine. She says that tourists from the mainland like to watch Taiwanese television shows, which are so different from their own, and get to know Taiwan.

The main gate of Taiwan's National Palace Museum

The main gate of Taiwan's National Palace Museum

"We were separated for so many years, for decades, so they like to come and see everything, especially Taipei 101 or the Palace Museum. They have an itinerary of seven or eight days. This means they go all over the island and try to see everything."

One of the Taiwanese government's largest fears is that too many people will come in illegally, which feeds into another stereotype: that the tour guides' number one task is making sure the visitors do not run away.

"Actually they do bear some responsibility and we have to make sure they come to Taiwan for purposes of tourism and not for other purposes. If a Chinese tourist goes missing, we will charge the travel agency 100,000 New Taiwan dollars," says Alice Chen.

But surprisingly, the rate of runaway Chinese tourists is low in Taiwan. On average just three out of 100,000 "go missing" on a tour. For the Taiwanese tourist industry, it is certainly a risk worth taking.

Author: Sarah Berning
Editor: Anne Thomas

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