What exactly is the relationship between Taiwan and China? From how China’s Taiwan Affairs Office behaves, it seems like it depends entirely on whether Taipei toes the line.
Take the manipulative approach Beijing takes to the number of Chinese tourists it allows to visit Taiwan: It is using them as a part of its Taiwan strategy. This is hardly separating politics and tourism.
For the eight years he was in office, the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was complicit with the politicizing of Chinese tourism, leading to about four in 10 tourists visiting Taiwan coming from China. This fact was not lost on the electorate in Taiwan and was something of an election issue.
Using Tourism Bureau data, it is possible to compare the number of tourists that visited from different nations in May. The number of Chinese tourists fell by 12 percent that month, but the number of tourists from other nations and regions increased. The number of visitors from the Middle East increased by 36 percent, from Europe by 19 percent, from South Korea by 17 percent, from Japan by 16 percent, from the US by 15 percent and from Southeast Asia by 14 percent, amounting to a total of 882,525 visitors, representing a monthly increase of more than 16,000 visitors.
Last month, high season, might have presented a new set of challenges, but it is unlikely to produce data showing dramatic decreases in visitor numbers, as some people have predicted
Of the total number of visitors in May, in addition to the 327,000 people from China, 145,000 came from Japan, 126,000 from Southeast Asia and 64,000 from South Korea. The shortfall in Chinese tourists has been made up for by tourists arriving from the other nations and regions. In another structural comparison, the daily quota for Chinese tour groups is 5,000 people, but, as a majority of these are budget tours or shopping tours, the statistics need to be reassessed.
Whether Beijing can manipulate Taipei through the number of tourists it allows to visit Taiwan depends on Taiwan’s resolve and how it decides to tackle the situation.
Last year, with the number of tourists visiting the nation exceeding 10 million, Taiwan officially became a major tourist destination. The growth rate in the tourism sector has pushed Taiwan into a top-10 tourist destination worldwide. Chinese tourists are at least partly to thank for this figure, although this also obscures a reduction in the quality of Taiwanese tourism experiences as a result of the sheer number of Chinese tourists, something that many business owners and fellow tourists would be able to identify with.
The contradiction has unexpectedly been exposed due to Beijing’s interventionist strategy, which has bolstered Taiwan’s resolve to quicken the pace of change.
The bureau had originally planned for an average growth rate for the number of Chinese tourists from last year to 2018 of about 2.6 percent and for non-Chinese tourists of about 5.8 percent.
Now that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has taken office, the estimates have to be reined in slightly. The average growth rate in Chinese tourists arriving in Taiwan has had to be changed to negative figures, which impacts other markets.
Given this, Taiwanese have to consider a number of basic measures. They have to increase the number of tour guides that can speak Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asian languages, and do it quickly.
Taiwan also has to speed up the development of e-commerce for the tourism industry, loosen regulations on tourist visas from “friendly” nations, step up diplomatic exchanges and arrange specific travel itineraries.
It should also develop new lines of tourist activities customized to different nations’ preferences to increase the desirability of Taiwan as a tourist destination.
That is not to say that Taiwan should exclude China as a source of tourists: It should think about how to increase the number of independent travelers coming to Taiwan, having first dealt with national security issues, guided by policy instruments, while simultaneously prioritizing an expansion of visitors from Hong Kong and Macau. Visitors from these two areas come, on average, with more money to spend and in general, often behave in a more well-mannered way.
If holding the tourism industry hostage is part of the central government’s strategy, local governments are using it as a cash cow.
The latest figures from Kaohsiung are interesting: Of the 8.06 million overseas visitors last year, 1.6 million were from Hong Kong. Many of those were in Taiwan for agritourism: Hong Kong relies entirely on imports to meet its fruit demand. Evidently, if Taiwan wants to improve its tourist environment, it should be looking into diversifying what it has to offer.
If the tourism industry can survive the peak tourist season this summer without too many difficulties, despite the machinations and manipulations of China, then it would have passed a turning point. The confidence boost it would give Taiwan would also affect other regions that have come under pressure from China.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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