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Taiwan welcomes China’s tourism boom. But Chinese tourists, not so much

China’s tourism to Taiwan, once banned, is now growing fast as bilateral ties improve. But with the influx of visitors comes a culture clash.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent / July 8, 2010

Honor guards perform in front of tourists from China at the Sun Yat-sen memorial in Taipei July 7. Taiwan plans to let tourists from China travel on their own on the island, government officials said on Wednesday, a boost to the service sector as suspicions over spying and illegal immigration fade and relations improve.

Nicky Loh/Reuters

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Taipei, Taiwan

The tour guide stood in Taiwan's National Palace Museum lobby, waving a tattered green pennant. She was trying to round up a group of Chinese tourists from Jiangsu Province in the first day of a weeklong tour of the island.

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Things hadn’t gotten off to a great start. Several members of the tour group had failed to show up at the agreed time. “It’s the first day, and they’re already lost,” the tour guide grumbled, after hanging up her cell phone.

So go the awkward relations between the Taiwanese and their mainland cousins. They’ve been seeing a lot more of each other lately, as warming cross-strait ties have opened the island to thousands of Chinese tourist arrivals each day.

An agreement in summer 2008 lifted a cap on Chinese tourists and added more cross-strait flights to carry them. After a slow trial period, Chinese tourists arrivals are now up to some 3,400 per day. More than a million are expected to visit in 2010 – up from just 55,000 in 2005, according to Taiwan government statistics.

This week, news came that Taiwan may allow up to 500 individual tourists arrivals per day from select cities in China as early as next spring (now, Chinese can only come in groups on tightly controlled itineraries).

Learning tourist etiquette

The Taiwanese have decidedly mixed feelings about all this. Tour agencies, hotel operators, and airlines love the boost in revenues. But it’s rare to find a Taiwanese who’s enthusiastic about throwing open the doors to the Chinese.

Chalk it up to a culture clash: for many Taiwanese, especially refined residents of Taipei, Chinese tourists are the bumpkin cousins tracking mud into their expensive foyer. Taiwanese stereotype the Chinese as smoking, spitting, coughing, bellowing, and generally uncouth visitors.

Still, many Taiwanese are patient with the Chinese, remembering that Taiwan tourists behaved much the same way a few decades ago, when the island first got rich and they began vacationing abroad in large numbers. And tourists’ behavior is expected to improve as smaller, more diverse groups from across China take the place of one of today’s typical groups: male, chain-smoking local Communist Party officials on a junket to the “renegade province.”

Politics also loom over tourist visits. Last year, Taiwan media reported that China had told its tour groups to cancel trips to southern Taiwan, after local pro-independence officials in the south invited the Dalai Lama – reviled by China for his support of Tibetan autonomy – for a visit.

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