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.

Wally Santana/AP
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.

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.

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.”

Breaking six decades of tension

The solo tourists will tread without restrictions for the first time on an island that their government has claimed since the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists and fled to the island some 100 miles away.

Breaking six decades of tension that occasionally brought the two sides to the brink of war, Beijing and Taipei opened a trade dialogue after the 2008 election of China-friendly Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou. Those talks led to a deal on group tourism, which has poured $3.8 billion into Taiwan’s economy without the once feared problems of overt spying or tourist overstay of permits.

So the two governments agreed to allow solo travelers, on a trial basis at first.

“When they come to Taiwan, they want to go wherever they choose, not bound by tour groups,” says Shen Ya-ching, co-operator of Green Tours, which has arranged trips for hundreds of group travelers. “They want to do a lot more, to go deeper.”

Culture shock and worries

Some experts worry that tourists may use their common language to argue with Taiwanese anti-China activists. Many in Taiwan still fear that China will take over the island through military or economic might, a subject that negotiators have avoided during trade talks.

Taiwanese, who pride themselves on higher standards of hygiene and public order because they have modernized faster than China, may also bristle if the tourists spit in the street, yell in restaurants, or smoke indoors as they may do at home.

“People’s quality in Taiwan will leave a deep impression on mainland tourists, who also won’t feel that they’re in a foreign country,” says Li Peng, a frequent visitor and assistant to the director of Xiamen University’s Taiwan Research Institute in China.

But tourists may be shocked that Taiwan’s “hardware” looks grungier than at home, Mr. Li warned. In China, shiny new high rises and superhighways have opened in bigger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Taiwan’s cities look drab in comparison.

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