Politics & Law

The contentious issue of Chinese tourists

06 March, 2024

While Chinese tourists were once welcomed and ubiquitous in Taiwan, when numbers dropped, the impact was not catastrophic. The debate about whether or not to resume group tours is driven more by political than economic considerations.


By Brian Hioe

The debate about Chinese tourists pre-pandemic

Chinese tourists were once a ubiquitous sight in Taiwan during the Ma administration. Now, however, though some travel does still occur–primarily in the form of individual tourists–the present is a far cry from the past. This is a product of a number of factors.


In particular, Chinese tourism to Taiwan used to primarily take the form of the Chinese group tour, in which several dozen or more Chinese tourists would travel to destinations together with a tour guide. Sometimes, the tour group would be ferried from location to location by tour bus.


During this period, however, there were frequent complaints about the behaviour of Chinese tourists. Stories circulated about unhygienic behaviour, for example, such as tourists from rural areas in China seeing no problem with haphazardly throwing garbage onto the street, spitting phlegm, or urinating in public areas. Or there might be complaints about Chinese tourists talking loudly on the phone on the MRT or other forms of public transport. This is analogous to the complaints about Chinese nationals that was seen in Hong Kong in the 2000s and 2010s as well, with the influx of Chinese as visitors or residents provoking fears about the Mainlandisation” of Hong Kong–this influx of Chinese occurring coextensively with political policy deterioration of Hong Kongs political freedoms.


The sharp uptick in Chinese tourism occurred as part of the Ma administrations efforts to facilitate stronger political ties between Taiwan and China through strengthening economic relations. At the height of Chinese tourism in 2015–immediately before the Tsai administration took office–Taiwan saw 4.2 million Chinese tourists. This was around 40.54% of the total number of tourists that Taiwan had that year. Similarly, the number of Chinese students in Taiwan also increased under the Ma administration, going from 800 in 2008 to 42,000 in 2016.


Concerns about the impact on Taiwan from Chinese tourists led to debate at the time, as coextensive with the uptick of Taiwanese identity that led to the 2014 Sunflower Movement, the month-long occupation of the Taiwanese legislature in protest of a trade agreement that the Ma administration hoped to sign with China, the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which would have allowed for Chinese investment in Taiwans service sector industry. For example, there were calls to reduce the number of Chinese tourists allowed to visit Taiwan, given the impact on ecological areas that are also tourist sites. Likewise, there were calls that Taiwan should pivot away from disruptive group tours and toward individual Chinese tourists, who were seen as less disruptive. As this discourse played out, there were also criticisms of some of the backlash against Chinese tourists as racist and discriminatory against Chinese, in line with discourse in Hong Kong that framed Chinese as locusts”. This occurred in line with public debates about the rights of Chinese spouses of Taiwanese, given increasing intermarriages that had increased with rising economic engagement between Taiwan and China since the 1990s.


The Chinese government began to decrease the number of tourists when the Tsai administration took power. This was a way of economically pressuring Taiwan. That is, China sought to create the perception that Taiwans economy had become wholly reliant on Chinese tourists and that the Chinese state could turn off” Taiwans economy at any given time if it so desired. This was an attempt to induce the Taiwanese public into voting for the political forces that China preferred in power during elections (the pan-Blue camp), with China intimating that it would carry out such actions with the DPP in power.


Yet the impact may not have been as large as China had hoped for, seeing as Chinese group tours occurred in locations that were relatively lacking in integration into the rest of the Taiwanese economy. Many tour sites only catered to Chinese tourists and not tourists from other countries, for example, with tourists ferried to and from such sites by buses. Academics who have researched the topic, such as National Taiwan Normal University associate professor Ian Rowen, argue that such tour sites constructed an ideological perception of Taiwan that accommodated the preexisting perceptions of Taiwan by such tourists.


Moreover, the economic benefits for local businesses were not as large or widespread as the number of Chinese visitors would suggest. Some experts took the view that the increase in the number of Chinese tourists was not the result of natural growth in the free market. Likewise, the Chinese tourist sector was sometimes read as relatively insulated and not linked to other sectors of the economy.

The death knell for attempts by China to construct such perceptions may have been the Covid-19 pandemic, following which there was a substantial period in which global tourism stopped altogether. Taiwan saw few if any Chinese tourists–or tourists from any other country–during this time. And though the blow to Taiwan and other countries was indeed significant from the loss of tourism, Taiwans economy soldiered on nonetheless. In fact, Taiwan went for more than a year without lockdowns while the soft lockdown” that was imposed was still relatively short before the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing for economic growth–and even without tourism, entrepreneurs and other target demographics were attracted to move to Taiwan to avoid the effects of the pandemic.


Continued contention about Chinese tourists after the pandemic

Post-pandemic, the tourism sector in Taiwan has begun to revive. This has primarily taken the form of tourists from other parts of Asia, whether from East or Southeast Asia. Outbound tourism by Taiwanese tourists elsewhere has also picked up.


Nevertheless, there have been calls to allow for Chinese group tours to Taiwan again. The pan-Blue camp, particularly the KMT, leaned into such calls during the 2024 elections. This occurred as part of the KMT more broadly leaning into calls for a return to policies of economic engagement with China from the Ma administration, including reviving the CSSTA, or arguing that more Chinese students should study in Taiwan. Such calls occurred roughly four years after China announced a ban on Chinese students studying in Taiwan. Consequently, the last cohort of Chinese college students studying in Taiwan will soon graduate. Nevertheless, with the KMT proposing that Chinese students should be allowed to take up low-wage jobs in Taiwan, this led to allegations from the DPP that the KMT favoured giving jobs to Chinese students over Taiwanese ones.


Either way, the Tsai administration is more cautious on the issue of allowing for a revival of Chinese group tourism. The Tsai administration did not reject outright calls for reviving Chinese tourism, but proposed limits on the number of tourists to 2,000 a day. Yet it is understandable that the Tsai administration, as well as the incoming Lai administration, will not want to so easily give back to China a lever on which it has historically leaned on to try and politically influence Taiwan without imposing some conditions.


After China announced a shift in flight route M503 so that the civilian flight route would pass close to the median line of the Taiwan Straits, the Tsai administration announced that plans to allow for group tourism to resume were off. This would likely be a pretext to avoid resuming Chinese group tourism, as well as an attempt to link the tourism issue to broader political issues regarding cross-strait contention, to justify this stance and avoid the issue of tourism being discussed as though it were not a political issue linked with cross-strait ones.


Taiwanese tour operators have been unhappy with this move, suggesting that they may demonstrate at Lais inauguration. It is not surprising that Taiwanese tour operators have called for the resumption of group tours, aligning with the KMT on the issue. Yet the DPP may believe that it will be able to shrug off such anger, given the weakened position of such tour groups because the perception no longer prevails that Taiwans economy is so impacted by the loss of Chinese tourism, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to all tourism. The pan-Blue camp has sought to breathe new life into this perception, but has not been successful with the broader Taiwanese public to date, even if the result of the 2024 elections show backlash over the DPP as the political incumbent over its failure to stimulate economic growth. The KMT has framed this more broadly as a result of the DPPs opposition to economic engagement with China, while the DPP has argued that world political and economic trends are now in the direction of decoupling with China, and the KMT is simply seeking to blindly replicate past economic policies that are no longer tenable.


Both China and the DPP government have sought to blame the other for the fact that group tours have not resumed. That is, the Tsai administration has framed the lack of group tours resuming as because of China continuing to use the issue to try and politically pressure Taiwan. On the other hand, China, as well as the pan-Blue camp, have framed the lack of resumption as due to the obstinacy of the DPP.


Still, the fact that both sides do not wish to come off as unilaterally suspending group tours and try to blame the other side suggests that neither is completely opposed to group tours resuming. China may even be open to the idea of group tours resuming under a DPP administration so as to again use tourism as a means of economically influencing Taiwan. Both sides are not likely to back down at present, and the DPP is not likely to relent on the issue either without preconditions. By contrast, the KMT and pan-Blue camp may aim to use its slim majority in the legislature to push the issue. This remains to be seen.


Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom

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