In a bid to economically intimidate Taiwan, China has canceled a program that allowed people from 47 cities to travel as individual tourists to the island nation. The ban came into effect on August 1, 2019.
The travel program has been in place since 2011 when Taiwan’s former President Ma Ying-jeou wanted to develop relations between both countries. But after Xi Jinping came into power, Beijing started getting aggressive, even suggesting that they would use military force to take over Taiwan. According to the new rules, Chinese citizens can only travel to Taiwan as part of a tour group.
By effectively blocking individual tourists, Beijing is hoping to curb tourism revenues from China and economically punish Taiwan. Foreign tourists accounted for almost 2.2 percent of Taiwan’s GDP in 2017. China is the biggest source of tourists to the island, sending almost one-third of visitors in May 2019. “This is a shock to all of us. We are all very worried about it… This will have a huge impact on Taiwan’s tourism and economy. Hotels, restaurants will all be affected,” Benny Wu, chairman of the Taipei Association of Travel Agents, said to Time.
The travel ban seems to be Beijing’s way to influence the upcoming elections in Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-wen is the favorite to continue as the leader of the island country. However, her strong anti-China stance makes Tsai a “dangerous” figure. She lashed out at the Chinese government for implementing the ban and warned that using tourists as a political tool will only increase the antipathy of Taiwanese people against China.
Taiwan’s upcoming elections are scheduled to be held in 2020. The island’s government recently gained approval from the U.S. to purchase American weapons. In addition, the United States is also helping Taiwan develop indigenous submarines. With Tsai in power, strengthening of the Taiwanese military will be a national priority, a policy that irks Beijing. Since China cannot directly interfere and meddle in the election process, it has decided to make things harder for Tsai by striking at the economy, hoping that it will force her to soften her anti-China stance or even push her out of power.
“[Tsai’s] Democratic Progressive Party is continually pushing activities to promote Taiwan’s independence and inciting hostility toward the mainland, seriously undermining the conditions for mainland travelers to visit the island… I believe compatriots on both sides of the strait hope relations will return to a correct track of peaceful development, allowing travel by mainland residents to Taiwan to return to normal as soon as possible,” Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said in a statement (Reuters).
When Tsai was elected as the president of Taiwan back in 2016, Beijing resorted to similar measures and censored the flow of tourists. As a consequence, the number of visitors from China plunged by about 35 percent between 2015 and 2018.
However, tourism from other countries skyrocketed thanks to government measures that relaxed visa requirements for foreign tourists. For instance, tourists from countries like the Philippines and Vietnam almost tripled, while visitors from Thailand doubled in the same period.
As such, many expect the Tsai government to adopt similar measures to boost tourist numbers from other countries rather than relying largely on China. After all, if Taiwan’s tourism industry ends up being a pawn of the CCP, Beijing will always be able to use it as economic leverage to put pressure on the country. By diversifying its tourist base, Taiwan will be more protected against such economic shocks.