29 January 2020
Taiwan wants to diversify its tourist market after a sharp decline in mainland visitors. Photo: Reuters
Taiwan wants to diversify its tourist market after a sharp decline in mainland visitors. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan tourist industry waits for more mainlanders

Taxi driver Lin Chiang waits patiently for customers outside the railway station in Hualien, east Taiwan. With mountain walks, dramatic scenery, Pacific beaches and hot springs, Hualien is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the island.

“Not enough mainlanders last year,” he said. “Yes, we had Thais, Filipinos and Malaysians and we welcome them. But they do not spend enough. Their countries are poorer than China. We need the heavy spending of mainland tour groups.”

In 2018, Taiwan attracted 11 million visitors, a record high and up from 10.7 million and 10.6 million in the two previous years. The government’s Tourism Bureau has set a target of 11.5 million in 2019 – they are expected to bring in NT$821.5 billion (US$26.71 billion) – and 12 million for 2020.

In its 2020 development strategy announced on Jan. 17, the bureau called for a diversification of tourists from 10 key markets – Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Indonesia and Australia – a development of “southern markets” and attracting more individual tourists from the mainland.

The island has also worked hard to provide an environment suitable to Muslims. In 2017, the Ministry of Economic Affairs set up the Taiwan Halal Center to train companies in making halal products and exporting them. It has helped 954 companies and more than 13,000 products gain halal certification. 

In October last year, the center won a Malaysia Tourism Council Gold Award in recognition of its achievements in promoting Muslim-friendly environment and facilities.

The 2018 total was a success, given the sharp fall in mainland tourists – 2.46 million in the first 11 months of the year, down from 2.73 million in all 2017 and 4.18 million in 2015.

This fall was due to restrictions imposed by both governments. Beijing is punishing the government of President Tsai Ing-wen for its refusal to acknowledge the “1992” consensus by reducing the number of group tours, the biggest spenders.

For its part, Taipei has been limiting the number by longer approval times for visas and often excluding members of the Communist Party and the government. This has cut the number and size of academic, trade and official delegations.  

“The figures for 2018 are not as good as they look,” said Robin Lee, a travel consultant in Taipei. “The government gave subsidies to travel agencies to make tours cheaper for Southeast Asians. There was a political imperative to keep the numbers up. The average income in these countries is lower than in China, so their people spend less.”  

In December, 152 Vietnamese who arrived on group tours went missing; they probably came to work illegally. Earlier in 2018, according to the Tourism Bureau, about 400 tourists went missing

Like their brothers and sisters in Hong Kong, Taiwan people feel ambiguous toward mainlanders, as summed up in the adage “歡迎人民幣,不歡迎人民” (welcome the people’s money but not the people). They prefer individual travelers, educated and well mannered; they dislike tour groups who are often badly behaved and repeat Communist slogans – but they spend the most. 

The tension has worsened since President Tsai took office in May 2016. Beijing has repeatedly criticized her, staged military exercises around and above the island and picked off its diplomatic allies. 

But, for owners of hotels, shops and restaurants, the pocketbook wins over the heart. 

This loss of business was one factor in the strong victory of Kuomintang candidates in the November elections. The new KMT mayors, of cities like Kaohsiung, Taichung, Yilan and Penghu, promised an increase in mainland visitors to help their economies.  

Most active has been Han Kuo-yu, the first KMT mayor of Kaohsiung in 20 years. During his campaign, he expressed support for the “1992” consensus. To reward him, Beijing approved a direct sea freight route between his city and Pingtan in Fujian province. It cuts the journey time from two-three days to nine hours.

On Jan. 19, on the maiden voyage, a Taiwan freighter loaded with over 700 tons of fruit, vegetables and liquid crystal display panels, worth over 15 million yuan (US$2.24 million) and purchased by Pingtan firms, left Kaohsiung for the Fujian port. Han said he expected more high-quality products made in Kaohsiung, including farm produce, to be shipped to the mainland market. 

“All mainland tourists are welcome to visit Kaohsiung and I promise to improve the city’s services and facilities to attract more visitors,” he said.

Beijing very much wants the KMT candidate to become president in next year’s election. The tourist card is a strong one for it to play. 

For its part, the DPP government will spend heavily on tourist promotions in the 10 priority markets to try to make up for the shortfall in mainland visitors.

Tourism has become another cross-straits battleground.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.