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Taiwan's tourism booming

Klaus Bardenhagen tko
February 21, 2017

Beijing's attempt to punish Taiwan by throttling tourism from the mainland hasn't made much impact. Taiwan set a new tourism record last year by successfully courting visitors from the rest of Asia.

Taipeh Skyline Taipei 101
Image: imago/imagebroker

Tourists bustle on the plaza at the base of "Taipei 101." The skyscraper, with its characteristic bamboo shoot design, was the tallest building in the world until 2009 and is a must-see for every tourist visiting Taiwan.

As a group of young Korean women try to take a selfie with the iconic 500-meter-tall high-rise in the background, travelers from Vietnam line up for a group photo and tourists from mainland China trail their tour guide to the elevators that will send them up to the observation deck on the 89th floor.

They walk past a group of men and women in bright yellow shirts, who sit cross-legged on the pavement, meditating. They are activists of the Falun Gong religious movement, whose followers are persecuted in the People's Republic. Every day, they wait for tourists from mainland China, holding up big protest signs to denounce the Beijing government's alleged human rights violations. Most Chinese only look at them surreptitiously, for fear of being monitored by the Communist Party of China (CPC).

A Falun Gong activist (left) holds up a protest sign in front of visitors from mainland China
A Falun Gong activist (left) confronts visitors from China with alleged human rights violations in the People's RepublicImage: Klaus Bardenhagen

Confrontations like this with Taiwan's freedom of speech have been accepted by the Beijing government since it started to send tourists to Taiwan nine years ago. Before 2008, there were not even direct flights between the mainland and the island, which Beijing views as a renegade province. 

But the situation underwent a dramatic change within a few years, with the number of visitors from mainland China surging to four million annually. Taiwan's then Beijing-friendly government was hoping to boost its tourism sector, which was rather small, compared to other destinations in Asia. Beijing, on the other hand, was interested in widening its economic influence in Taiwan. Both sides hailed the increase in tourism numbers as a visible sign of a new policy of détente.

Imposing curbs on tourism

Nevertheless, the atmosphere reversed completely last year, with an increasing number of people in Taiwan criticizing what they saw as their government's appeasement of mainland China.

After the opposition's victory in the last elections, Taiwan's new President Tsai Ing-wen, who was inaugurated in May 2016, refused to acknowledge Beijing's "one China" policy. Since then, the authorities of the People's Republic have been tightening the screws on Taiwan at various levels. It has tried to isolate the Taiwanese government on the international stage and has sent its aircraft carrier to the Taiwan Strait. 

It has also had an effect on tourism. Last year, for instance, the number of visitors to Taiwan from the mainland declined to 3.5 million, down 18 percent from the previous year. Group tours have experienced an especially harsh decline, down a third since Tsai took office. Beijing has never declared that it is trying to obstruct tourism to Taiwan. But as Chinese authorities determine the number of tour groups, they also have the power to decrease their flow to Taiwan.

Touristenzahlen Taiwan
For these young Korean tourists Taipeh is just a two and a half hour plane ride awayImage: Klaus Bardenhagen

More tourists from other nations

Given the situation, there was a lot of relief when Taiwan announced record-breaking tourism numbers. More than 10.6 million tourists visited Taiwan in 2016, up 2.4 percent from the previous year, despite the drop in visits from  the mainland. 

Growth was driven by tourists coming from other Asian countries. In 2016, the number of visitors from Thailand alone increased 57 percent, statistics released by the tourism office showed. Likewise, the number of foreign tourists from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia grew by 34.3 percent, 23.9 percent, 10 percent, and 6.2 percent respectively.

There was a 17 percent increase in visitors from Japan as well as more than 34 percent raise from South Korea. All in all, this growing number of visitors more than compensated for the drop in Chinese visitors.

Vietnamese tourists in Vietnam
Taipeh is a popular destination for travelers from Vietnam Image: Klaus Bardenhagen

The tourist numbers correspond with Tsai's official strategy to reduce Taiwan's economic reliance on China and to intensify relations with Southeast Asian nations. The increased numbers of tourists from that region are attributed to Taiwan's easing of visa restrictions for some ASEAN countries like Thailand, which came into effect last August.

Today, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are seen as emerging economies, which were neglected by Taiwan in the past. But there is also another reason why China's attempt to foil Taiwan's tourism tourism has failed: the increase in tourists from Japan, South Korea and Singapore who are considered to be well off, likely to spend money and are interested in a variety of things Taiwan has to offer.

In contrast, the convoys of tour buses filled with mainland Chinese tourists have caused many Taiwanese to cringe. Some destinations, like Mount Alishan or the Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, are often extremely overcrowded and the media often reports about the rude behavior of Chinese tourists.

Touristenzahlen Taiwan
Japanese are valued guests thanks to their buying powerImage: Klaus Bardenhagen

Worlds apart

However, some companies catering to mainland Chinese visitors complain about a decline in business. But the overall effect on the Taiwanese economy is limited, says Ian Rowen, a cultural geographer studying Chinese tourism in Taiwan. Whether it's hotels, buses, restaurants or souvenir shops - the business with mainland tour groups, many in the industry suggest, is controlled by companies financed by investors from China or Hong Kong, Rowen added. "If so, many of the profits are being transferred abroad anyway."

Rowen, who accompanied Chinese tourists on bus tours as part of his research, thinks the strict visiting schedules make it almost impossible for Chinese tourists to meet people from Taiwan. But when mainland tourists face Falun Gong members in front of "Taipei 101," or when they meet rallying Taiwanese independence supporters once in a while, Rowen explains, they have the rare opportunity to instantly experience the differences in politics and society of the two systems.