China has recently been squeezing Taiwan economically by limiting Chinese group tour trips to the island.
What is less well known is that Taiwan’s government has been making up for much of the damage from the loss of Chinese visitors by easing the way for more tourists from Southeast Asia to visit Taiwan.
China wasn’t pleased when Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen took power in May of last year.
Beijing regards self-governing Taiwan as a part of its territory, and it sees Tsai as a proponent of independence for the island.
Although Tsai has been careful not to speak openly about independence, she hasn’t supported the conciliatory China policy pursued by her Nationalist Party predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou.
Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has declined to endorse a consensus agreed to in 1992 by China and Taiwan when the island was ruled by the Kuomintang (the KMT), or Nationalist Party.
It’s an accommodation that allows both sides to agree that there’s only one China, with each side apparently free to interpret what that means.
DPP detractors contend there is little documentation to support the consensus.
At the same time, Tsai has taken a pragmatic approach by calling for a continuation of the status quo with China.
Beijing meanwhile has frozen contacts with Taipei and has been looking for other ways to pressure Taiwan, including an intensified effort to get nations with which Taiwan has diplomatic relations to break off their ties with Taipei.
The results on the diplomatic front have been mixed. But the drop in Chinese tourist groups visiting Taiwan has been offset by a rise in the number of individual tourists coming from Japan and South Korea, as well as several countries in Southeast Asia.
And these individual tourists tend to spend more money during their stay than the average Chinese group tour visitor.
Among the rise in visitors from Southeast Asia, Thailand stands out, with an increase of 57 percent in 2016 as compared with 2015.
According to the Thai Travel Agents Association, the recent introduction of the island’s visa-free policy could nearly double Thai visitor arrivals to 360,000 this year compared with nearly 200,000 in 2016.
Thais attracted to Taiwan
Part of Taiwan’s attraction for people in Thailand comes down to a human element.
Several middle-class Thais living in Bangkok told RFA that they have found people in Taiwan to be “nice” and “well educated.” They also feel that Taiwanese social and personal ethics are “very similar” to those found in Thailand.
Thais value the inexpensive food found in Taipei’s popular Shilin Night Market and the cleanliness of Taiwan’s restaurants, many of which are reasonably priced.
Religion may also play a role. A Thai Buddhist nun said that her temple, like a number of others in Thailand, has established relations with a temple in Taiwan.
Roughly one in three Taiwanese consider themselves to be Buddhists, whereas some 90 per cent of Thais are believed to be Buddhists.
It may also help Taiwan that Khemanit Samikorn, a famous Thai movie and TV actress and model, who is widely known in Thailand by the nickname “Pancake,” has promoted tourism in Taiwan.
She spoke on Feb. 20 at a convention center event in Bangkok titled “Time for Taiwan.”
But the biggest attraction for many Thais appears to be Taiwan’s decision last year to loosen visa regulations. Thais can now stay in Taiwan for 30 days without a visa.
China Airlines, Taiwan’s state-owned airline, has been offering inexpensive tour packages, including round-trip air fare from Bangkok to Taipei, two free nights at a hotel, and a free sightseeing bus tour.
And tourist arrivals are up not just for Thais but for a number of other nations.
According to the Taipei Times, recent Tourism Bureau statistics show that Japanese tourist arrivals rose by 16.5 percent, South Koreans by 34.25 percent, Malaysians by 9.95 percent, and Vietnamese by 34.33 percent between May of last year and February.
But Thais easily led the pack with arrivals rising by 57.26 percent.
Taiwan’s southbound outreach
The visa-free rule, introduced in August of last year, is part of a “new southbound policy,” an initiative of Taiwan’s ruling DPP aimed at boosting investment and trade ties with Southeast Asia as well as South Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
Its main aim is to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on economic ties with China, including revenue from tourism.
But another aim is to enhance people-to-people ties, educational exchanges, and agricultural development. This would take advantage of Taiwan’s “soft power strengths,” which include an advanced educational system.
In the meantime, some Chinese tourists still travel to Taiwan, though in reduced numbers. The reduction in group tours is partially offset by individual Chinese visitors, who continue to arrive and who tend to spend more than the average group tour visitor.
It’s important to note that the group tourists’ spending tended not to benefit many Taiwan businesses.
Chris Horton, an American journalist based in Taiwan for the past decade, explained this in an article written for the Quartz website published in early February this year.
According to Horton, “even when China was sending over large numbers of tour groups, they were only benefiting a small number of Taiwanese businesses that were aimed primarily at this market.”
“On top of that,” Horton says, “many of these local businesses were only getting a fraction of the total money spent, with most of the spoils going to Chinese tour organizers.”
In some cases, Chinese tourists, while not contributing much to the local economy, were crowding out domestic travelers, he says, “a phenomenon that has led to a backlash elsewhere, including Thailand.”