China, Taiwan grow closer with new surge in tourism

TAIPEI, March 17 (Reuters) - Taiwan has seen a sudden spike in tourism from China, as an effort by Beijing to improve ties helps its political rival battle recession with a long-sought boost to the service sector.

The number of tourists from China, which considers the self-ruled island part of its territory and has historically been blocked from sending visitors, has reached an average of 2,285 per day since February when the new push began.

The sudden boom, which comes as people around the world cut back on travel amid the global economic crisis, has fuelled a rally in tourism stocks, with Taiwan's two leading airlines, China Airlines 2610.TW and Eva Airways 2618.TW, both up more than 20 percent over the last week and the broader tourism sub-index .THOI up 16 percent.

“It’s because the Taiwan government added pressure on China to relax rules on tourism,” said Winston Hsieh, a director at Martin Travel in Taipei. “Chinese are curious about Taiwan.”

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Beijing has vowed to bring the island under mainland rule, by force if necessary, but ties have improved vastly since China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in May.

China has sought to win hearts in Taiwan, a strategy for eventual unification, by helping Ma honour a campaign pledge to revitalise his economy by letting in a daily maximum of 3,000 visitors from China.

New trade and transit agreements between the two sides saw daily charter flights launched on Dec. 15 as a prelude to scheduled services.

Beijing in January nearly doubled the number of citizens eligible for trips and simplified the sign-up process to visit Taiwan, which once saw Chinese visitors as security threats.

Chinese people’s wealth and ability to travel have surged over the past two decades as the economy has boomed.

Airlines previously at about 70 percent capacity on China-Taiwan routes are suddenly up to 92 percent full this month and clamouring for new flights, Taiwan’s aviation authority said. [ID:nTP72543]

Beijing's Air China 601111.SS chairman, Kong Dong, told tourism officials in Taipei on Monday he wanted to add flights. Competitors, which include Taiwan's China Airlines and Eva, have expressed similar interest.

But airlines can add nothing until today’s daily charters, which began in July, are upgraded to regular scheduled flights.

“Passenger volumes are huge, so the airlines say they need more flights,” an aviation authority publicist said. “But we have to wait for the two sides to talk again.”

Some tourists are also coming by sea.

A liner from Shanghai dropped off 1,600 Chinese tourists in Taiwan on Monday on a four-day, T$500 million ($14.5 million) trip. Travellers said they would spend up to several hundred dollars on souvenirs for envious friends at home.

“This is China’s treasure island, so we need to come have a look at it,” said camera-toting passenger Chen Xiaobo, of east China’s Zhejiang province, who arrived on the ship from Shanghai. (Additional reporting by Gina Chang; Editing by Alex Richardson)