Taiwan tour operators sceptical about China boom

The launch of regular direct flights between China and Taiwan has been hailed as a symbol of progress and a boon to tourism, but industry workers in Taipei are not all convinced.

About 700 mainland tourists arrived on the island to much ceremony over the weekend after taking the charter route, seen as ushering in a new start and the most visible sign yet in the thawing of cross-strait relations.

Taiwan has restricted trade and travel since its split from the mainland in 1949 but the election of Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou in March opened the door to warmer ties.

In a sign of rapprochement, the two sides last month held their first direct talks in a decade and signed agreements to launch the flights and treble the number of Chinese allowed to visit the island to 3 000 daily.

Tourism officials hope the extra visitors, beside promoting cordial people-to-people exchanges, will bring in 60-billion Taiwan dollars ($1,97-billion) annually, a big boost to local trade.

But some tour operators are sceptical.

“The agreements might look good on paper but I dare not think how much I can profit from that with a slow economy, rising inflation and high fuel prices,” said Wu Shih-chih, who hires out yachts to tourists.

“I will not consider buying a new yacht or other equipment unless I can see a steady increase in business within six months,” said Wu, who has four craft taking visitors around Sun Moon Lake, a popular destination in central Taiwan.

Others are concerned that Chinese tourists, sometimes seen as loud and ill-mannered, could drive away other international travellers.

“We have fewer Japanese visitors since the government opened up to more mainlanders,” lamented a bus driver who works for a leading travel agency in Taipei.

“I am not thrilled at receiving the mainlanders because they can be proud and impolite; they think China is so important in the world,” said the driver, who asked not to be named.

Jack Lee, manager of a Taipei travel agency, said he often gets complaints from restaurants or shops that Chinese tour groups are too noisy or pay no attention to no-smoking signs.

“Some waiters also complained that Chinese customers throw bones or leftovers on the floor instead of leaving them on the plates, or let cigarette ash fall everywhere,” Lee said, although most were willing to oblige when told.

Restaurateur Liu Ming-sung was blatant in expressing his dislike for mainland tourists, putting up a sign reading “refusing Chinese communists” at his establishment in southern Kaohsiung city.

“I think President Ma is wrong to see opening up to mainland investments and tourists as an elixir for Taiwan’s economy,” Liu said.

“Let’s not forget that China is targeting Taiwan with thousands of missiles and they are still our enemies. Taiwan might be at risk under such rash moves,” he said.

His sentiments mirror those of Ma’s predecessor Chen Shui-bian, whose pro-independence rhetoric had angered Beijing. China claims Taiwan as its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

However, changes have been rapid since Ma took office in May.

Taiwan banks can now exchange Chinese currency, limits on Taiwanese investment on the mainland have been eased, and some Chinese media outlets that had been banned on the island now have clearance to work.

There will be 36 round-trip flights across the Taiwan Strait weekly, operating from Friday to Monday between six Taiwanese airports and five on the mainland.

Johnny Tsai, a manager at China Times Travel Service, called the weekend flights “a good start” to boost tourism, although he expected a more tangible effect once the trips bed in.—AFP


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