It looks like South Korea won’t be the only country that has to deal with the “South Korea” treatment anymore as China is planning on continuing to restrict travel to Taiwan once again. Chinese tourism to Taiwan has been increasing in recent months, leading to speculation of a policy reversal.
Akin to the South Korea tourism ban, it’s more of a quasi-tourism ban than a full-fledged tourism ban, with nothing formally announced. In practice, China is putting a halt on group travel to Taiwan, which represents a large portion of leisure travel, while letting independent travel, and consequentially, business travel continue as usual. In other words, China’s latest tourism ban is once another attempt to retaliate against “unwanted” behavior by limiting the number of lucrative Chinese leisure tourists that go to a foreign country.
First South Korea, then the Vatican, and now Taiwan
As China learned with its South Korea tourism ban, Chinese leisure tourists have become so profitable for foreign countries that putting curbs on it can mean a significant loss of revenue. In essence, it can be viewed as a trade war—but putting limits on tourism “imports” rather than on physical goods. From a trade point of view, China runs a high trade deficit in tourism, particularly with neighboring countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.
So, what’s going on?
According to local media in Taiwan, Beijing may be limiting the number of Chinese tour group travelers in Taiwan to 311,000 between April and September, before putting a full stop on tour group travel in from October to December. In a statement published by the Taipei Times, Cheng An Travel Service Co-President Wu Pi-lian said that there’s a possibility that “there will be no more Chinese tour groups this year.” According to other local media reports, China has ceased to issue Taiwan travel permits to Chinese tour groups altogether.
The details about China’s latest travel ban remain scarce
Without any official statements from the Chinese side, as was the case with South Korea’s travel ban, it’s difficult to assess exactly how severe the travel ban will end up being. However, Jing Travel was able to confirm that China’s leading online travel agencies (OTAs) have stopped selling group tours to Taiwan beyond June 2018. However, listings for Taiwan are still available—whereas South Korea disappeared entirely from many OTA storefronts altogether when it became subject to a Chinese travel ban. Again, like with South Korea, Jing Travel was able to confirm that independent travel to Taiwan is still available for purchase just as usual.
Where things get even more difficult is to pinpoint China’s justification for its new Taiwan travel ban. In the case of South Korea, the travel ban was clear retaliation against South Korea’s decision to deploy the United States-manufactured THAAD anti-missile defense system. With Taiwan, there’s no clear source of recent major disagreement that would justify a ban—instead, there seems to be a range of factors that may have influenced China’s decision on travel to Taiwan.
Elections, U.S. legislation, an independence-leaning party… China takes issue with many things Taiwan
Perhaps most importantly, Taiwan will be holding local elections on 24 November, which falls right in the middle of the period where it looks like China is implementing a blanket ban on tour group travel. This falls in line with how China tends to behave around Taiwan’s election seasons, most recently in 2016 when it held its most recent legislative and presidential elections. The reason for wanting to prevent its citizens witnessing Taiwanese election campaigns and elections are quite self-explanatory.
Beyond elections, there is also a range of other “issues” in or regarding Taiwan that China has taken issue with in recent years and months. Notably, China is wary of Taiwan’s ruling party, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, and had already taken steps to limit Chinese tourism to Taiwan following its 2016 electoral victory.
More recently, both houses of the United States Congress passed the so-called Taiwan Travel Act, which would allow U.S. and Taiwan government representatives at the highest levels to make visits to Taipei and Washington, D.C. respectively. China vehemently opposes this legislation and claims that it is in violation of the so-called One-China principle.
Fortunately for Taiwan, visits from Japan, South Korea, and Souteast Asia are up
Even more recently, the earthquake that struck the Taiwanese city of Hualien last month resulted in Chinese tourist casualties in a hotel that collapsed. According to local media, this factor combined with “politics” may be the primary reasons behind China’s Taiwan travel ban.
While details still remain scarce, one thing is for certain: Taiwan may have a rough year in Chinese tourism in front of it. Just like with the South Korea travel ban, how long the ban will last is anyone’s guess. In the case of South Korea, that still remains uncertain—and in the case of Taiwan, China has plenty of reasons to keep it in place indefinitely.