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China tried to threaten Taiwan by weaponizing tourism, but it didn’t work

Daniel Shih/AFP via Getty Images
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  • Isabella Steger
By Isabella Steger

Asia deputy editor

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Last year, China upped the ante against Taiwan and used an array of measures to try to bring its government to heel. It boycotted a prestigious film festival in Taiwan, enticed more countries to break diplomatic ties with Taipei, and once again restricted the number of visitors from the mainland. And, as before, it failed to achieve the desired effect.

According to Taiwan’s tourism bureau, the number of foreign visitors to Taiwan in 2019 hit a record 11.84 million, a 7% increase from the previous year and the sharpest annual jump since 2014. Visitors from China, meanwhile, increased 0.5% from the previous year.

This came despite an announcement by Beijing in August that it would suspend trips to Taiwan by individual tourists, an attempt to hit the island’s economy so that voters would re-consider voting for president Tsai Ing-wen in this weekend’s general election. Tourist arrivals from China promptly plunged 60% the following month.

China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, considers Tsai a secessionist and has implemented coercive economic measures and repeatedly threatened to use force against Taiwan since she was elected in 2016. That year, China leaned on tour group operators to limit the flow of visitors to Taiwan, and in the two months after Tsai’s inauguration Chinese group tours to Taiwan dropped by 30%.

Some argue, however, that diversifying visitors away from Chinese groups is healthier for Taiwan’s domestic tourism industry: many local businesses that cater to the Chinese only receive a fraction of the money they spend, with most of the spoils going to Chinese tour organizers. Even so, workers who are reliant on business from Chinese tourists have staged protests to express their anger at Tsai’s China policies.

Tourist numbers from China to Taiwan have never quite recovered to the highs of the pre-2016 years, when a government that espoused closer ties to Beijing was in power in Taipei. Nonetheless, Taiwan has made up for that shortfall by luring tourists from other markets, mostly Japan and Southeast Asia, and by relaxing visa requirements for some countries. Last year, the number of visitors from Japan exceed 2 million for the first time.

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