Like Hong Kong, Taiwan’s tourist industry is heavily dependent on mainland visitors to fill its hotels and restaurants and spend heavily in its luxury shops and specialty boutiques.
But since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in May last year, Beijing has been punishing her in many ways for her refusal to acknowledge the “1992 consensus” of one China. One way has been to reduce sharply the number of group tours to Taiwan.
As a result, the number of mainland visitors in 2016 fell by 16.1 per cent to 3.51 million from the 2015 level.
But an intense marketing effort in other countries meant that overall the total number of arrivals rose 2.4 per cent to a record 10.69 million.
The number of Japanese rose 18 per cent to 1.9 million. Thais are up 57.3 per cent, Vietnamese up 34.3 per cent and of Filipinos up 23.9 per cent.
In the first 11 months, the number of Hong Kong and Macau visitors increased 6.5 per cent to 1.48 million.
With cross-strait relations deteriorating, the government expects a further decline in mainland visitors in 2017 and will continue its marketing elsewhere.
On Thursday, Vice President Chen Chien-jen told the visiting Eikei Suzuki, governor of Mie prefecture in Japan, to encourage more Mie people to visit.
“Japan is the favorite foreign country for Taiwanese to visit and Taiwan the favorite foreign destination for Japan,” he said.
Last Thursday, President Tsai marked the record tourist arrivals by sending a Twitter tweet, saying “thank you” in nine languages, including Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indonesian, Filipino, Vietnamese and Hindi.
Liang Min-tian, a secondary school teacher, said that Taiwanese felt the same way toward mainlanders as people in Hong Kong.
“We welcome their spending but find much of their behavior unacceptable. We avoid places where we know there are many mainlanders. Some say things we find offensive. Since their leaders keep saying that they will invade Taiwan and attack us with missiles, how can we feel comfortable?”
One pithy summary of this common sentiment is: “we welcome the people’s money (renminbi) but not the people.”
Liang said that there was only limited economic benefit to Taiwan from the mainland tour groups. “Mainland firms have bought the hotels and restaurants they use and the buses they travel in.”
Another factor in the decline in the numbers is serious accidents involving mainland visitors. Since 2008, 83 people have been killed and 159 injured in 12 major accidents.
To offset the decline, the Ministry of Communications announced in February an increase in the daily number of individual mainland visitors from 5,000 to 6,000 and extended their maximum stay from 15 to 30 days. They are more welcome than group visitors; they are better educated, more polite and do not all go to the same place at the same time.
This diversification suits the government of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which wants to put more distance between Taiwan and the mainland.
In economy also, it is encouraging businesses to invest in and trade with countries in southeast and south Asia and reduce its reliance on the mainland; it accounts for 40 per cent of Taiwan exports, against 18 per cent for Southeast Asia.
“I love coming to Taiwan,” said Takao Nakamoto, a retired Japanese businessman. “People are polite and friendly, many speak Japanese and I find many places that remind me of home. There are many hot springs and Japanese food is available everywhere. If there were fewer mainlanders, we Japanese would come more often.”
But the tourist industry regards the figures with alarm. It argues that the mainland is the biggest market and its people spend the most and that they cannot be neglected.
The pro-Beijing Want Daily said that spending by mainlanders in Taiwan in 2015 was NT$220 billion and that it would fall to below NT$100 billion in 2017. It said that individual mainland travellers spend on average NT$15,000 in duty-free shops, compared with NT$5,000-6,000 by mainland group travellers, NT$3,000 by Japanese and Thai Chinese, NT$2,700 by Americans and Canadians and NT$1,500-1,800 by Vietnamese and Filipinos.
Like most large business conglomerates, the big tourist companies want Tsai to recognise the “1992″ consensus and put relations on the same footing as they were during the eight years of the Ma Ying-jeou presidency. Those years saw an unprecedented boom in mainland tourists in Taiwan.
So Tsai and her ministers have to find a way to balance the demands of the supporters who put them in power and those of the captains of industry.
– Contact us at [email protected]