The ruling Chinese Communist Party has warned its state-controlled tourism industry not to send any tour groups to the Vatican, amid growing diplomatic tensions between Beijing and the Holy See.
An employee who answered the phone at the Phoenix Holidays International Travel Agency said travel agencies had been sent a directive dated Nov. 16 ordering them to delete or cancel the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica from their list of destinations.
"Travel agencies are required to cancel any tours that include the Vatican or St. Peter's in the itinerary," the directive said.
"Any travel agency found to be advertising these destinations in their promotional literature or other products will be fined up to 300,000 yuan," it said.
The move is the first time China has intervened to prevent its nationals from traveling to the city state, which abandoned attempts to set up ties with Beijing after a Catholic priest was jailed for complicity in an alleged plot to assassinate then supreme leader Mao Zedong in 1950.
The Holy See has instead maintained formal diplomatic ties with the 1911 Republic of China, which fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war to Mao's communists in 1949.
While Beijing in 2013 offered its congratulations on the inauguration of Pope Francis, China has also made it clear that better ties with the Vatican can only follow a severing of diplomatic links with Taipei.
"We can't do it any more, because we don't have diplomatic links with the Vatican," the Phoenix Holidays employee said. "I can't really answer your questions, because all of this has been decided by the State Tourism Bureau."
"These are policies that have been handed down to us by the government."
State Tourism Bureau order
An employee who answered the phone at the Chengdu branch of the same company also confirmed the directive.
"There won't be any [tours to the Vatican] from now on, because of the international situation," the employee said. "Travel agencies are no longer including them in itineraries."
An employee who answered the phone at the Tuniu China International Travel Service said her company had received similar orders.
"We used to, but we're not offering that itinerary any more," the employee said. "Groups aren't going there any more."
"We received a directive from the State Tourism Bureau telling us not to let people go there, so there's nothing we can do about it," she said.
An official who answered the phone at the Guangdong provincial branch of the State Tourism Bureau said the directive had been issued at the highest level of government in Beijing.
"We didn't send this out; it was the central government," the official said. "The Vatican, as a sovereign state under the rule of the Pope, hasn't legally recognized us."
"This is a diplomatic issue, so only the ministry of foreign affairs or the State Tourism Bureau would have the authority to [to decide this]," he said. "We don't necessarily know about their political attitude."
"As businesses, travel agencies can't afford to shoulder this kind of political risk or responsibility."
Repeated calls to the State Tourism Bureau in Beijing rang unanswered during office hours on Tuesday.
An employee who answered the phone at the State Tourism Bureau helpline said she was unable to find a copy of the directive, however.
Bullying South Korea and others
A highly placed source surnamed Ye at a Chinese travel agency said the government frequently orders the industry to comply with its political or diplomatic requirements, without being seen to do so publicly.
"Once politics is involved, they don't care if they cause your business to lose money," Ye said. "All it takes is a single conference call, and nobody will dare offer tours to [the place in question]."
"They have played a similar game with South Korea, Sweden and Japan in the past," he said. "A lot of travel agencies and duty free stores went out of business altogether after the boycott of South Korea ... but when their government complained to China, the Chinese government denied ordering the ban."
"The Chinese government will never leave a paper trail for such things, but in reality, it can implement them very effectively," Ye said.
A second industry source surnamed Chen confirmed that many companies suffer losses as a result of conforming with such boycotts.
"Let's be frank; nobody's going to argue with the government," Chen said. "And companies are going to seek to minimize their losses."
The Vatican is the only European state with which Taiwan—as the seat of the 1911 Republic of China founded by Sun Yat-sen—still has full diplomatic relations.
While Taiwan has governed its own affairs under the Republic of China name since defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war, the Communist Party, which has never ruled the island, regards it as a renegade province awaiting reunification.
Relations between Beijing and the Vatican have come under repeated strain under the administration of President Xi Jinping, as China moves to ordain more and more of its own bishops without Vatican approval to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population.
The Vatican typically responds by excommunicating bishops who accept Beijing's consecration ceremonies, saying that only the Pope can appoint bishops.
China's officially sanctioned Catholic Church has between five and six million members, while an underground church loyal to Rome has an estimated 10 million followers.
Reported by Wong Siu-san, Hai Nan and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.