May 25, 2023
Singapore – Taiwanese tour operators are bracing for a rebound in cross-strait tourism even as Taiwan has yet to lift a ban on group travel to China amid geopolitical tensions between Taipei and Beijing.
“The tourism industry is very optimistic that they can send tour groups to China soon,” said Mr. Liu Zhiqiang, head of travel agency Best Original Travel Service.
The optimism stems from China’s announcement that group travel to Taiwan will resume from last Friday – three years after inbound travel was restricted due to Covid-19.
Major tour operators such as Lion Travel and Richmond Tours have started to organize group tour itineraries to China so that they can sign up any time after Taiwan’s travel ban is fully lifted.
Traditionally popular Chinese destinations, including Shanghai and Beijing, may be among the first to be offered, Lion Travel said.
However, with Taiwan still banning its residents from traveling to mainland China on group tours — also in place because of the pandemic — Beijing’s latest announcement has yet to carry any real weight.
Zhang Shih-chung, head of Taiwan’s tourism bureau, told local reporters on Friday that Taiwan would not lift the ban until after talks between the two sides, adding that he hoped this would happen by the end of May.
Negotiations between the two sides should be conducted through semi-official entities that handle cross-strait tourism, namely the Taiwan Straits Tourism Association and its Chinese counterpart, the Cross-Strait Tourism Exchange Association, he said.
“Cross-strait tourism must also resume on an equal footing, with a two-pronged approach,” Mr Zhang added at a news conference, referring to China’s current ban on its own citizens visiting Taiwan.
In August 2019, Beijing banned Chinese tourists from traveling to the island to apply for individual travel documents, citing the state of relations between the two countries. China’s surprise move is widely seen as an attempt to hurt President Tsai Ing-wen, from the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, chances of re-election in January 2020.
Later in 2020, China also banned its citizens from traveling to Taiwan on group tours, citing the pandemic.
The successive bans have dealt a huge blow to Taiwan’s tourism industry, as Chinese tourists are its biggest customers, accounting for about a quarter of overseas arrivals in 2018. Industry sources estimate that Beijing’s measures have cost Taiwan at least NT$28 billion (S$1.2 billion) in lost revenue for more than six months.
South Koreans now make up the largest proportion of tourists to Taiwan — 59,195 arrived in February — although overall tourist numbers are still only about a third of what they were before the pandemic. In 2019, Taiwan attracted a record 11.8 million tourists from all over the world.
Luo Xuanhong, chairman of the Taipei City Tourist Chamber of Commerce, said: “In the past, mainland tourists came to Taiwan and usually stayed for more than a week, spending more than Japanese and Korean tourists.” .
On Taiwan’s Golden Gate Islands, local taxi driver and tour guide Ms. Huang Meili would certainly like to see the Chinese city of Xiamen, where big-budget tourists used to flock to take the 30-minute ferry ride to her hometown.
These ferry routes partially reopen in early 2023, but only to Golden Gate residents and their spouses.
“Business is too difficult now. I can go weeks without receiving any customers,” said the 62-year-old, adding that most tourist attractions in Kinmen have been empty in recent years.
But while Taiwanese tourism operators are eager to resume cross-strait tourism, not all Taiwanese holidaymakers are so sure.
Several Taipei residents told The Straits Times that they would “wait and see” how the political situation in the two places develops before deciding whether they want to go on vacation to China.
Last Thursday, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reminded Taiwanese to assess their personal risks before traveling to the mainland, given China’s “ambiguous” laws on national security.
In April, a Taiwanese publisher of books critical of China’s ruling Communist Party was detained on the mainland, raising concerns about Beijing’s tactical arsenal to pressure Taiwan.
“As geopolitical tensions in the region have been widely reported in the media, this has affected people’s perception of the other side,” Huang Zhengzong, an associate professor at Taiwan’s Jingyi University’s Department of Tourism, told The Straits Times.