OP-ED: Why Is China Promoting Tourism in Taiwan?

OP-ED: Why Is China Promoting Tourism in Taiwan?

What you need to know

Has Beijing's Taiwan tourism strategy shifted?

China’s state news agency has used its official Twitter and Facebook accounts to advertise Penghu, a group of outlying islands in Taiwan, for tourism.

Xinhua says, “Feel pressure and tension? Let sunshine, beach and sea waves of the Penghu Bay to relax you [sic] in S.E. China's Taiwan.” The message was reproduced in various languages across Xinhua’s different accounts.

The statement that Taiwan is – as the possessive implies – part of China will rile or amuse many in Taiwan. However, after months of speculation that the flow of visitors from across the Taiwan Strait is slowing because of cooler ties between Taipei and Beijing, can this advertisement be taken as sign that China is once again encouraging its citizens to visit Taiwan?

China is the single biggest source of tourists to Taiwan, and as academic Ian Rowen wrote recently, “…it may seem hard to remember that just a few years ago, government officials and scholars on both sides of the Strait were hailing the growth of cross-Strait tourism as a form of reconciliation or rapprochement.”

There has been concern from the island-nation’s tourism industry that Beijing, which froze official communication channels with Taipei after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in May and has blocked Taiwan's participation in international fora, has curbed the number of its citizens who can travel to Taiwan. Anecdotal evidence suggests restrictions have hit tour group operators.

Fears about the slide in the number of tourists from China have been reinforced by the latest statistics from Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, which show visitors from China dropped by more than 110,000 last month from the same period last year. Almost 250,000 Chinese – excluding people from Hong Kong and Macau – visited Taiwan in August, a 32 percent decline from the same month a year earlier. Chinese visitor numbers were down 15 percent in July.

While the reasons for the drop in Chinese tourists have yet to be determined – Hong Kong and Macau have also experienced drops in Chinese arrivals this year – the change has been widely interpreted as driven by Beijing in response to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) taking power from the China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT).

On Sept. 12, about 10,000 people took to the streets in Taipei, calling on the DPP and the Tsai administration to assist the industry. Four days earlier the government promised millions of dollars in loans and support to the sector.

However, the total number of Chinese visiting Taiwan in the first six months of 2016 was up 2 percent compared to the first half of 2015. This, coupled with a net 14 percent increase in foreign visitors for the period, casts some doubts on the financial impact of the drop in the number of visitors from China. As it has been observed recently, the income from a spike in Chinese tourist numbers in Japan has been significantly offset by lower spending on a per visitor basis – on the back of a slowing growth in the Chinese economy – and currency fluctuations among other factors.

And while the declines in July and August cannot be discounted, it remains unclear whether Beijing has in fact pulled any levers to stem the flow of its tourists travelling to Taiwan each month. In July, Taiwan had reportedly fallen off the “hottest” destination lists for Chinese travelers. Another issue affecting the August numbers – and possibly late July – could be the July 19 bus crash in which 24 Chinese tourists were killed.

As for Xinhua's promotion of Penghu as a tourist destination, this appears to be more for international than domestic consumption. The implicit territorial claim aside, time will tell whether it marks a shift from Beijing, in rhetoric at least. More likely, it is simply another example of one part of the gargantuan Chinese state machine simply being out of touch with another.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole