Taiwan welcomed the first Chinese visitors arriving on direct flights three months ago as a boon for tourism, but global financial troubles and local political uncertainty might deflate such hopes.
Taiwan has severely limited trade and travel with China since the two sides split at the end of a civil war in 1949, but change has been rapid since Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou became president in May.
His government resumed talks with Beijing in June, which led to the launch of regular direct flights and tripling the number of Chinese allowed to visit the island to 3,000 daily the following month.
The authorities here were counting on the extra visitors to bring in 60 billion Taiwan dollars (1.87 billion US) annually in a major boost to tourism and the economy.
Despite the rapprochement, fewer than 300 Chinese visitors came to the island on average every day since July, and the number only doubled during China’s October 1 “Golden Week” holiday, according to government data.
Industry watchers, however, are not surprised by the low turnout.
“Many of our customers lose interest once they learn that it takes one and a half months just to complete the paperwork to visit Taiwan,” said a tour guide from the southeastern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
“Instead they opt for places like Thailand which is cheaper and only takes three days to get a visa,” said the guide surnamed Xu.
China has imposed various restrictions on travel to Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
Currently, Beijing only allows people from 13 provinces and cities to apply for permits to visit the island, while 33 mainland agencies are authorised to manage Taiwan tours.
Tour operators are also concerned that the recent incident of a top Chinese negotiator who was mobbed in southern Taiwan could dissuade more mainland visitors.
Zhang Mingqing, vice president of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, was shoved to the ground by pro-independence protesters in a scuffle earlier this month.
The episode triggered an angry response from the Chinese government, which demanded Taiwan severely punish the activists who manhandled Zhang.
“The incident is likely to impact tourism in the short term,” said Eric Chang, chief executive officer of the Taiwan Visitors Association.
“But I think the Chinese people will come to see that this was an isolated case and that the vast majority of Taiwanese are friendly toward them,” he said.
Politics aside, the tourism industry is bracing for the global financial storm which is likely to force many people to scrap or alter holiday plans.
“The cost of visiting Taiwan from the mainland is as high as to Europe or America and travel will be affected in an economic downturn,” said Ivan Lin, a manager at China Travel Service (Taiwan), a leading agency handling Chinese tourists.
According to travel agencies, an eight-day trip to Taiwan is priced between 7,000-10,000 Chinese yuan (1,030-1,475 US) while a seven-day Thai tour is around 1,800 yuan.
“The harsh winter has just begun for us after the global market crash. I’m afraid that more and more people will cut travel spending to save money in difficult times,” said a travel agency manager in Taipei.
“We were optimistic that the Ma government would boost tourism by improving ties with China but I think the current (economic) situation is beyond its hands,” he said.
Ma rose to power on a platform of improving the economy, particularly through closer trade ties with China, as trade between the two sides last year rose to more than 100 billion US dollars.
Still, there is a silver lining as industry workers are hopeful that Beijing will agree to relax more rules on travel to the island when its top negotiator Chen Yunlin is scheduled to hold talks with Taipei next month.