Last week, China and Taiwan increased the number of weekly cross-straight charter flights for the second time since July. Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou says the increase will help the economy by bringing in more mainland tourists. But the number of has fallen short of expectations. Thibault Worth reports from Taipei.
Taiwan lifted restrictions on Chinese tourists in July, tripling the number allowed in each day to three thousand. But since then, the number of mainland visitors has risen to only about five hundred a day, up from about 160 early in the year.
By contrast, the number of mainland visitors surged in Hong Kong in 2003 after new rules allowed more tourists from China. More than five million arrived in the six months after restrictions were lifted compared with seven million for all of 2002.
Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou is making closer economic ties with China a cornerstone of his presidency. Since he took office in May, Taiwan and China have established direct shipping, cargo and postal links.
President Ma recently said that an increase in daily flights this month will soon help boost the number of visitors. But he declined to project how many will come in 2009.
"I think certainly, we will continue to try to solicit more tourists from the mainland. But, at the moment, we cannot have a very definite figure that we will be able to get, beginning next year."
Mr. Ma says that China also is working to boost tourism to Taiwan. The number of mainland travel agencies authorized to work with tourists coming to Taiwan will jump to 165 from 33 now. In addition, the number of Chinese provinces permitted to send tourists will increase to at least 23, up from the current 13.
Taiwan split politically from mainland China in 1949 when Nationalist forces fled the mainland at the end of a civil war. Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to take the democratically ruled island by force should its leaders move to declare independence.
Although Taiwan businesses have invested billions of dollars in China, there were almost no direct transportation links between the two until this year. That meant business travelers and tourists had to stop in Hong Kong or another city when going to and from the mainland.
Taiwan officials had hoped that easing the travel restrictions would bring in a flood of Chinese tourists, who would spend up to two billion dollars annually. That would give a boost to the economy, which is struggling because of the global financial crisis.
But travel agents in Taiwan are not certain how lucrative the mainland business will be.
Agents here handle local hotel accommodations and travel reservations for mainlanders. But so far, smaller agencies have been hesitant to enter the market because of the small number of tourists and burdensome restrictions, such as the requirement that mainland tourists travel in groups of 10.
There also is a risk that a mainland tourist would not return home. Salaries are higher in Taiwan leading many locals to fear that Chinese tourists will try to stay here illegally. According to Taiwan's National Immigration Agency, 124 mainlanders disappeared from their tour groups from July through September.
William Chen is the president of Ole Travel Services, in Taipei.
Chen says that according to the current regulations, if any Chinese tourist escapes from his group, he would be fined 20,000 New Taiwan Dollars (Eds: about 615 U.S. dollars). He also has to pay the Tourism Bureau a deposit of two million New Taiwan Dollars (Eds: about 61,000 U.S. dollars) in advance. If he loses all 10 tourists, he will be in the red.
Another problem is that mainland visitors may fear they will not be welcome in Taiwan.
In October, a visiting Chinese official was shoved to the ground by pro-independence protesters. Last month, Chen Yunlin, the president of China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, was greeted by protests throughout his historic visit to Taipei.
He says there were a lot of protests and controversy during Chen Yun-lin's visit, which caused some trepidation among the Chinese people. But, he says, they would still like to come to Taiwan if possible.
He says, however, he will wait to see how the market grows before deciding to take on mainland visitors as clients.