KINMEN COUNTY, Taiwan (Reuters) - On this distant outpost controlled by Taiwan but so close to mainland China that you can see its shore line, reminders abound of a turbulent past between cross-strait rivals that once fought a civil war. But with tensions at relative lows and few if any gunfire exchanges in years, this island known to history buffs as Quemoy is looking to tourists -- especially from China -- attracted by military relics from decades of warfare between China and Taiwan.
“Even though Kinmen is close, it’s still very mysterious to them,” said Lin You-feng, general manager of Jun Shying Travel Service Co. Ltd., a tourist agency on Kinmen island.
Kinmen County, an island chain with a population of 76,000, is catering to Chinese tourists by converting military facilities into tourist traps and building museums with wartime themes.
Chinese tourists, who come on a rare ferry link from the mainland, can visit minefields, mortars and other wartime relics as well as purchase souvenirs of switchblades, cleavers and other knives made from spent artillery shells.
A multilingual tourist map of the 12 Kinmen islets is sprinkled with little red stars showing where the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war in 1949, battled their mainland-based Communist rivals on-and-off until the 1970s.
Taiwan estimates 10,000 troops died in the decades of fighting, and the island itself attained fame in the West when it became a major election issue in the 1960 U.S. presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Due to its proximity to China, Taiwan considered Kinmen a front-line to staving off its Communist foes, and built up a large military complex there, including miles of tunnels in the years after its 1949 retreat.
All but 3,000 of the Taiwan soldiers who were once based here to repel invading Chinese have retreated to Taiwan about 200 km away.
In a bid to capitalise on Chinese curiosity, Taiwan, still largely closed to its neighbours across the channel, opened Kinmen in 2003 to residents of China’s Fujian province just a short ferry ride away.
Despite limits on their numbers and movements, the volume of Chinese visitors to Kinmen has increased steadily, sometimes topping 3,000 per month, said Tsai Cheng-chan at Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council’s Kinmen office.
But the tourism comes with conditions set by China, including an informal agreement not to show politically sensitive war exhibits. One such exhibit at a war museum features a room that shakes as Chinese rockets are fired via a movie screen.
“I thought this would be an ocean village,” said a teacher surnamed Hu, part of a group of some 25 teachers from the Chinese city of Xiamen, across the straits. “I just wanted to see it.”
While curiosity drives many to come, true military buffs can still catch a glimpse of some of the 3,000 soldiers that remain on the islands, down from more than 20,000 before the 1990s.
The current military garrisons still look out for signs of hostile movement from China, which has said it reserves the right to attack Taiwan if peaceful reunification fails.
But these days the local authorities are just as focussed on the rampant stream of mainlanders trying to sneak in illegally and eventually make their way to Taiwan in search of a better life.
As the military presence fades, tourism operators also fear that Chinese tourists’ interest in Kinmen may also dwindle.
“When they first come here, they’re very curious, but at the end they think it’s not exciting enough,” said Hong Shu-chen, director of the Golden Universal travel agency.
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