Why Beijing froze individual travel permits for Taiwan

August 02, 2019 12:19
About 1.9 million mainlanders visited Taiwan with individual travel permits last year, about 17 percent of the total number of visitors to the island. Photo: Reuters

Beijing, in an unprecedented move, has stopped issuing individual travel permits for Taiwan. The ban, which took effect on Aug. 1, covers 47 mainland cities.

In its statement, China's culture and tourism ministry didn’t provide details as to the reason for the ban.

Some link it to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s recent high-profile visit to the United States and Washington’s approval of arms sales to the island, which they believe must have annoyed Beijing.

Others floated the possibility that the move was aimed at punishing Tsai for her remarks supporting mass protests in Hong Kong.

It has been reported that about a dozen Hong Kong youth activists have sought political asylum from Taiwan.

So the travel ban could be Beijing's way of warning Tsai not to intervene in Hong Kong affairs.

I personally believe the freeze on individual travel permits is more tied to the presidential election in Taiwan next year.

Things have been going well for Tsai these days.

Taiwan’s GDP growth has hit the highest level in more than a decade, reaching 2.41 percent in the second quarter, thanks to strong exports, domestic demand and investment.

The latest cover story of Taiwan’s Global Views Monthly reports that a growing number of overseas Taiwanese companies are relocating back to the island as the US-China tariff row intensifies.

Beijing move, thus, could be intended to cool off Taiwan’s growth momentum and put pressure on Tsai.

In the meantime, candidates from the opposition Kuomintang could use the travel ban as a campaign card by telling voters that they could convince Beijing to resume the individual visit program if they were elected.

However, it could be a double-edged sword. The number of mainland tourists to Taiwan reached 2.7 million last year, of which 70 percent were individual travelers. They represented 17 percent of the total number of tourists to the island.

While this is a significant number, it is not enough to kill Taiwan’s tourism industry or to inflict a deadly blow to the island’s economy.

Last year, the island attracted 1.97 million travelers from Japan, 1.7 million from Hong Kong and Macau, and 1.02 million from South Korea.

Taiwan can always boost efforts to lure travelers from other regions to offset the impact of a decline in mainland tourist arrivals.

On the other hand, the travel ban would give Tsai another ammunition in arguing for lesser economic dependence on the mainland.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 1

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist