Cross-straits relations are blossoming, if tourist numbers are anything to go by. Before the launch of regular direct flights between mainland China and Taiwan in 2008, there were just 100,000 mainland tourists visiting Taiwan each year, according to the Financial Times. But last year China became the biggest source of tourists for the island, with over a million visitors. That took them past Japan, for decades Taiwan’s leading visitor group.
Taiwan wants to attract more mainland spenders, so the government is planning to relax restrictions to let Chinese visitors travel to the island as individuals. Right now, the number of mainland tourists is capped at 3,000 per day, and visitors must be part of a tour group.
Shanghai and Beijing are the first two cities taking part in trials of the new scheme, which are due to begin in the second quarter of the year, says Shao Qiwei, director of the National Tourism Association.
The original ban on individual travel was prompted by mutual suspicion: Taiwanese that Chinese spies might tour the country under tourist cover, and Chinese that more than a few of its nationals would attempt to defect. Since 2002, 187 mainland tourists have gone AWOL, says Xinmin Weekly. Not a huge number, although it has increased quickly since Chinese tourists werefirst permitted to travel directly to the island in 2008.
Currently Taiwan travel agencies have to pay up to $3,400 as deposit for each Chinese tour group they escort. If anyone in the group doesn’t make it on the return trip, the deposit is taken as penalty.
The debate now is to determine the deposit expected of individual travellers. “A major obstacle is that Beijing is asking Chinese tourists to put down a deposit, the amount of which has yet to be decided, before their visits,” said a Taiwan official.
Industry observers believe that the new scheme won’t have much of an immediate impact (only a restricted number of individuals will be allowed to visit Taiwan in the initial phase). But most agree that the potential economic benefits of Chinese tourism will be huge over the longer term.
“Individual travellers can go to every corner and spend their money,” says Anthony Liao, standing supervisor with the Taipei Association of Travel Agents. “They can do the night markets and the small stores, not just souvenir shops. It’s an advantage for the wider Taiwan economy.”
The 22.7 million Chinese tourists that visited Hong Kong last year puts the Taiwan numbers in a little context. Many make the trip to Hong Kong in organised groups, too. But the city has suffered recently from a reputation for extremely cheap packages in which travel agencies then herd visitors into expensive stores in exchange for a cut of sales. If the tour groups don’t play ball, things can get rough. Earlier this year, a Hong Kong tour guide and two Chinese tourists were arrested for brawling outside a jewellery store. The reason? The tour guide was angry at their refusal to buy anything.
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