course in political risk for Taiwan's
tourism By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - Taiwan has had a foretaste of how
a mainland Chinese boycott of cross-strait tourism
could look like, three years after President Ma
Ying-jeou's Kuomintang government allowed in tour
groups from across the Taiwan Strait.
Local airlines, boosted by dreamlike
occupancy rates on their cross-strait flights, saw
their shares rising by more than 100% as the flow
of mainland tourist groups gathered strength once
Ma had opened the cross-strait gates, while
tourism destinations scattered across the island
have been reaping handsome profits.
Numbers will grow even faster following
Taiwan Premier Wu Den-yih's announcement on
Tuesday that independent mainland
visitors - dubbed free
independent travelers - will be allowed to visit
the island from next month, starting with a
maximum of 500 a day. Several aspects of the
Taiwan economy will benefit.
that can be opened can also be closed, and the
Taiwanese side is not the only party that can
decide the if and the when. Any day, Beijing could
prevent its citizens from crossing the Taiwan
Strait if developments on the island were to run
counter to its wishes.
In no time at all,
the gold rush-like euphoria brought about by
mainland tourist arrivals would turn into a major
hangover, possibly reining in Taiwan's current or
future leaders. A scenario in which Beijing could
justify halting all or part of cross-strait travel
without even being suspected of political
blackmail was recently made apparent.
During the past 10 months, so many
accidents occurred in Taiwan involving mainlanders
traveling in package tours that some Taiwanese say
they have been losing their lives like flies.
During last year's Typhoon Megi, 20 mainland
tourists were killed by landslides on a steep
serpentine coastal road, while 19 narrowly escaped
death after a boulder crushed their bus.
In April, an alpine railway train
overturned after being struck by a falling tree;
five mainland tourists were killed and 109
passengers, most of them also from the mainland,
were injured. Two weeks later, four members of a
tour group from Shanghai were lucky to suffer only
broken ribs and bruises after their bus rammed
into a cliff.
Although it was clear that
the island's prevailing "close enough is good
enough" attitude towards road and rail traffic was
to blame, Taiwanese officials were quick to label
the accidents as acts of God.
Even so, the
carnage didn't go unnoticed on the mainland.
During the seven days before April 27 - the day
the train derailment occurred - the daily average
of mainland tourists visiting the island hit a
high of 5,681. (The daily quota is 4,000. If that
number is exceeded on a given day, it is applied
against days that see fewer arrivals.)
Then, in the so-called Golden Week -
China's seven-day holiday spanning May 1, when
numbers are supposedly at their highest - arrivals
suddenly declined by 20% year-on-year, and this
despite only a maximum of 3,000 Chinese tourists
being allowed to visit Taiwan daily in 2010.
The Taiwanese Tourism Bureau indirectly
acknowledged that the unprecedented decline might
have been related to the stream of accidents. What
augured particularly badly for Taiwan's
high-flying cross-strait tourism ambitions was
that Shao Qiwei, director of the China National
Tourism Administration, called into question the
whole idea of letting mainland tourists spend
their holiday yuan in Taiwan, and implied that the
large and sudden drop in Golden Week arrivals
indicated that Beijing had indeed orchestrated
something that had cut off the tourist flow.
"If there is no safety, then there is no
tourism," Shao declared, according to China News
Service, the mainland's second-largest state-owned
Although Shao's explosive
statement has been insistently played down by the
Taiwanese Tourism Bureau, with the bureau's
director general Janice Lai assuring, "We have not
heard of any action taken by China that
discourages its people from coming to Taiwan," the
damage was done.
Shao's statement and the
eerily steep Golden Week drop revealed how an
inconspicuously packaged mainland boycott of
cross-strait travel could well come about.
Taiwan's leaders can ill-afford risking
the cross-strait tourism flow being halted by
Beijing for whatever reason and under whatever
pretense. The mainland has become the
fourth-largest international spender on travel,
after Germany, the United States and Great
Britain. It is expected that by 2015, its citizens
will spend US$110 billion annually on their trips
Recognizing that 17 million
mainland tourists visited Hong Kong last year,
contributing significantly to the economy there,
the Ma administration has been more than eager to
reach a deal with Beijing to pave way for the
first batch of free independent travelers to visit
Taiwan during the three-day Dragon Boat Festival
break, which begins on June 6.
agreement in place, the number of mainland
visitors to Taiwan could surge to 2 million this
year, up from 1.2 million, bringing in US$2
billion, in 2010, according to Agence
France-Presse. (Taiwan media supporting the KMT
government give considerably higher figures). The
prospect has encouraged the cabinet-level Council
for Economic Planning and Development to predict
the island's private consumption will grow at its
strongest pace in seven years at 3.94% in 2011.
The local stock exchange is also expected
to be affected significantly. The advent of
individual tourism is cited as one reason the
benchmark TAIEX, which is hovering around 9,000,
could climb to 9,500 or 9,600 in the second half
of this year.
Demand will also rise for
cross-strait flights - average occupancy is
already at 85.8%. The Civil Aeronautics
Administration believes the number of direct
cross-strait flights will increase to 500 per week
from the current 370.
Shares in China
Airlines, the Taiwanese flag carrier, last year
rose 122% because of cross-strait demand, a trend
that is going to be further propelled by the
arrival of independent mainland travelers. The
amount of land bought by foreign investors in
March was up five-fold from the same period last
year, a gain all but entirely attributed to
anticipation surrounding the arrival of individual
Taiwanese themselves don't seem overly worried
about a possible easy come, easy go policy for
their cross-strait neighbors or its consequences.
When approached for comment by Asia Times Online
on the prospect of a mainland boycott on
cross-strait travel, observers played down its
"How much Taiwan
actually benefits from [mainland] Chinese tourists
at the end of the day has always been debatable
here," said Huang Hua-hsi, a Taiwanese legislative
assistant. "Until individual travelers can come,
ordinary people and businesses wouldn't be much
affected if Beijing suddenly closed the gates."
He believed the mainland would in any case
not opt for an island-wide boycott if it wanted to
use tourism as a political tool, but could take
different stances towards regions of Taiwan
administered by the Beijing-friendly ruling
Kuomintang (KMT) and those run by the less
Beijing-friendly opposition Democratic Progressive
"To meet its political
objectives, Beijing could stop tourists from
visiting the DPP's south while encouraging them to
travel to the KMT's north," said Huang.
2009, mainland tourists avoided the southern city
of Kaohsiung after the Tibetan spiritual leader
the Dalai Lama had been invited there and a
documentary on Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur
activist, was screened at a local film festival.
The tourism sector in Kaohsiung suffered from such
a drastic drop in visitor numbers that the city
and Taiwan's other municipalities and counties
have since then carefully avoided repeating
Kaohsiung's mistake in cocking a snook at Beijing.
Professor Yungnane Yang, chair of the
Department of Political Science and Institute of
Political Economy at National Cheng Kung
University, indicated that recent developments
regarding safety issues and past boycotts cannot
simply be lumped together, even though the
economic effects would much be the same.
"I believe safety issues are always an
important point to mention and to be considered in
policy-making. Therefore, I believe it is no
surprise that the Chinese government wants to do
something to protect its people," he said.
It was also important to consider whether
any mainland curb on cross-strait tourism came
with preconditions attached.
"It would be
a rational regulation if the Chinese government
limited a boycott to a certain period or to a
certain extent, meaning that the regulation would
be canceled if the Taiwan government met some
safety criteria. Only if the boycott doesn't come
along with preconditions, it would be a political
one," said Yang.
Jens Kastner is
a Taipei-based journalist.
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