China, Taiwan add tourists to their squabbles

BEIJING/TAIPEI (Reuters) - China and Taiwan have added tourism to their bones of contention since the pro-independence opposition swept to power in January elections, trading accusations about who is to blame for a decline in Chinese visitors to the self-ruled island.

Tourists from China pose for a group photo in front of a Taiwanese flag, in Taipei, Taiwan May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

China has made no secret of its dislike for incoming President Tsai Ing-wen, who takes office on May 20, and for her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has traditionally favoured independence.

Since the polls, Taiwan has accused China of effectively kidnapping its citizens from Kenya on suspicion of involvement in fraud, and reacted angrily to China casting doubt on its observer status at the World Health Organization.

Now the Chinese tourists who visit Taiwan - 4.2 million last year - have become the focus of discord.

The number fell 10 percent on month to 363,878 in March, according to Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau.

That is still up on a year ago, but those who service the visitors, including the bus companies that shuttle tour groups around, say they are feeling the pinch.

“Chinese tourists took about 4,000 tour buses a month this time around last year, but now it’s only 2,800,” said Lu Shiao-ya, chief of the National Joint Association of Tourist Buses.

“China is using its tourists as a bargaining chip against Taiwan’s new government,” he added.

If Tsai’s inauguration speech next week upsets Beijing, which still claims the island as its territory after the defeated Nationalists fled there at the end of the civil war in 1949, many fear China could really turn the screws on tourist numbers.

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“This kind of political interference would only result in hurt feelings for people on either side of the Taiwan Strait,” said Tung Chen-yuan, spokesman for Taiwan’s incoming government.

The travel industry is nervous.

“Everyone is waiting to see how China will react to the inauguration speech,” said Golden Kou, a vice president of EVA Airways, Taiwan’s second-largest carrier.

Two tour agents said they had been told to restrict the numbers they send to Taiwan since the election.

“The National Tourism Administration told us in February and March to cut the number of tourists we send to Taiwan,” an agent in the coastal city of Xiamen, which lies across the strait from Taiwan, told Reuters.

“From Xiamen the number of tourists has fallen sharply, down more than 50 percent,” said the agent, who asked to be identified only as Chen.

An agent in Guangdong province, who gave her family name as Kuang, said Chinese were “still fascinated with Taiwan”, but government had cut the numbers allowed to visit.

A Beijing source with knowledge of China’s policy on Taiwan tourism said there had been technical problems in some provinces, including Henan, which ran out of application forms for Taiwan tourist permits.

The Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to a request for comment, and the relevant office at the China National Tourism Administration declined to comment.

Chinese state media blames Taiwan.

This week, the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily said Taiwan’s fiddling with the quota system was causing the fall in numbers.

(Story refiles to correct gender of travel agent in paragraph 16.)

Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING; Editing by Will Waterman