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In new sign of trust, Taiwan opens to solo travelers from China

Breaking six decades of tension, China hopes allowing solo travelers to Taiwan will advance its goal of political unification, while Taiwanese see the prospect as a boon to the economy.

By Correspondent / June 27, 2011

Chinese tourists pass Taiwanese souvenirs as they arrive at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park in Taipei, Taiwan, Monday, June 27, 2011. Mainland Chinese tourists have had to travel in supervised group tours but now, starting Tuesday, Taiwan will officially allow them to travel on their own.

Wally Santana/AP

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Taipei, Taiwan

On Tuesday, Taiwan will begin letting in independent travelers from rival China, a strong new sign of mutual trust that Taiwan hopes will lift the island’s service economy and Beijing hopes will aid its long-term political ambitions.

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A deal, which also required China's permission, was reached earlier this month that allows for 500 solo travelers to travel to the island per day from China. Until now, the tourists from China could only come in tightly controlled group tours. Now those solo travelers, who can stay as long as 15 days, can chat with Taiwanese locals as they chart their own course – shopping as they go – despite the potential scuffle over politics, hygiene, or manners.

China hopes the exchanges between its tourists and Taiwan's locals will advance its goal of eventual political unification. Taiwanese officials see solo tourists as a way to pump more money into its service sector, analysts say.

“Beijing would hope that people in Taiwan realize mainland Chinese are not devils: they’re common people and they’re Chinese,” says Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Tourism in Taiwan by the numbers

Chinese tourists spend 80 percent of their money shopping, compared with US and European travelers, who spend only 20 percent, Taiwan’s top China policymaker Lai Shin-yuan told a news conference last week. But group tours – bringing in some 2.34 million tourists a year – rely largely on the same hotels, bus companies, and souvenir shops as arranged by travel agencies, cutting out most of Taiwan.

“The economic effects have been huge,” Ms. Lai said. “We want not only to expand those but expand them to the grassroots of our society.”

Chinese solo tourists are expected to take their reputation as big overseas shoppers to hotels, food stalls, tea shops, and department stores all over the island, says Chen Chiong-hua, spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau.

Travelers are expected to spend an average of $245 per day, generating an estimated $315 million to $675 million per year, she says.

Taiwan’s service sector, worth about 64 percent of the total $425 billion gross domestic product last year, has struggled with modest consumer demand since the 2008- 2009 world financial crisis and even before then, due to wage and employment problems.

“This is something Taiwan and the mainland both want to see. Now tourists will be able to do their own trip planning,” Ms. Chen said. “The money they spend will be spread out to every type of business.”

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