Relations between Taiwan and China are at a two-decade low as China steps up its efforts to militarily intimidate Taiwan and the United States under President Donald Trump has increased its support for Taiwan. With its ban on individual travel, Beijing is increasing its pressure campaign against Taipei and may also try to influence Taiwan's upcoming presidential election. But such a strategy could easily backfire.
Citing the current status of cross-strait relations, China's Ministry of Culture and Tourism on July 31 announced a ban on visits to Taiwan by solo tourists from 47 mainland cities. The ban takes effect Aug. 1. It will not affect business travelers or group tours.
Why It Matters
Tourism numbers show that 2.7 million mainland tourists visited Taiwan in 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available. These figures indicate the travel ban on individual tourists could reduce the number of visitors to Taiwan by 700,000 in 2019 if the ban is extended to year's end. As the largest single source of tourism to Taiwan, accounting for one-fourth of the island's total visitors — and given that Chinese tourists spend more than other tourists do — the ban could significantly hit the Taiwanese tourism sector, which accounts for just under 5 percent of the island's gross domestic product. The number of mainland tourists to Taiwan had already declined significantly beginning in 2016, largely owing to cross-strait tensions. In 2017, tourism dropped nearly half from 2015's 4.2 million visitors, contributing to an estimated annual loss of $2 billion to Taiwan's tourism sector despite an overall record-high 11 million visitors to the island that year.
Control of tourism flows from the mainland gives Beijing another means of stepping up the pressure on Taipei along with military intimidation and diplomatic isolation as Beijing chafes at Taipei's pro-independence ruling party. The ban comes after Taiwan imposed restrictions on mainland media influence and curtailed civil exchanges, and as it is poised to establish a blacklist of Chinese tech companies such as Huawei in response to increased Chinese threats to its national security. The tourism move also comes as Beijing warily eyes stepped-up security relations between Washington and Taipei, such as increased transits by U.S. naval vessels through the Taiwan Strait and a $2 billion package of arms sales to Taiwan.
Control of tourism flows from the mainland gives Beijing another means of stepping up the pressure on Taipei along with military intimidation and diplomatic isolation.
Perhaps most critically, the ban comes into effect just six months ahead of a high-stakes Taiwanese presidential election, the outcome of which could well determine the trajectory of cross-strait relations in the coming years.
But Beijing's bid to shape Taiwanese behavior could easily backfire. Just as its efforts to assist the anti-independence Kuomintang's electoral fortunes via economic incentives have had mixed results, the tourism ban along with other punitive measures could anger voters and make pro-independence parties more appealing. At the very least, the ban will shelter solo travelers — who enjoy greater freedom than those on tours — from growing Taiwanese criticism of the mainland and support for ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
Taipei began allowing groups from the mainland to visit Taiwan in 2008 and solo travelers in 2011. Solo travelers also received permission from Beijing to visit Taiwan in 2011 beginning with individual tourists from three cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen, and expanding in 2015 to a total of 47 cities. China is now the world's largest source of outbound tourists, sending 130 million abroad in 2017. These tourists also spend more than tourists from any other nation. And this gives Beijing another source of leverage to use to influence relations with other countries, though efforts to use this leverage with South Korea and Taiwan have shown mixed results at best. For example, Beijing restricted group travel to Taiwan before the island's 2016 presidential election to reduce support for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen, but Tsai won anyway.