Mainland Chinese travel boom is a mixed blessing for Taiwan
In the first of a two-part series, we examine how the island is cashing in on the rise in travellers from across the strait, but locals are grumbling
Ralph Jennings in Taipei
Taiwan's once-quiet travel industry is embracing a steady increase in tourist arrivals from the mainland, but faces new strains from the growing influx of visitors, who threaten to overrun the island's prized landmarks.
With 2.58 million arrivals from the mainland last year - much of that during its three week-long national holidays - businesses from tiny inns to big airlines have made space for more visitors, travel industry watchers say.
Mainland arrivals to Taiwan are up 45 per cent from 2011. In 2008 only a trickle of cross-strait tourists was allowed.
Now, hot spots such as the National Palace Museum and the vertical mountain walls of the Taroko National Park attract so many tour groups that locals have started to complain.
The race is on to balance growth that is benefiting the travel industry against ordinary people's gripes about sometimes loud, boisterous tour groups. This month, bird flu deaths on the mainland put Taiwan on alert, and it stepped up screening of mainland arrivals at airports.
"Of course, we have the hope that the number [of tourists] can be higher," said Lin Yen-mei, a specialist with the Tourism Bureau. "The scenic spots don't complain, but individuals do."
Learning to get along with quieter, more orderly locals takes time, she said.
"In our early days, Taiwanese had no experience [of] travel abroad. For mainland tourists, it has been just four years, so this place is still very unfamiliar," Lin said.
Both sides are ethnic Chinese, but Taiwan's breakaway in the 1940s has distanced them politically and economically, leading to different expectations of public behaviour.
Taiwan opened regular group tours from the mainland in 2008 as the island's president, Ma Ying-jeou, struck deals designed to help the island's economy.
The number of mainland tourists visiting Taiwan in 2011 totalled 1.78 million, but just 191,000 were travelling independently.
Second-tier hotels in Taipei or within a day's journey of major attractions such as the Alishan scenic area and Sun Moon Lake quickly fill up with mainland tourists during holidays such as Spring Festival, and tour buses can be hard to arrange.
Independent travellers are also finding their way to Taiwan's more remote corners.
Wang Daiyue, a state shipping firm worker from Beijing, spent 15 days and 20,000 yuan (HK$24,822) cycling around Taiwan, and ran into fellow tourists who were diving or prospecting on beaches.
"It was convenient," Wang said. "I bought a bike in Taipei and ended up shipping it home."
And as independent mainland travellers have increasingly opted to stay in Taiwan's cottage-like inns, the number of guesthouses has grown - from 3,200 to 3,774 over the year ending in February, the Taiwan Rural Accommodation Association says. Inns are vying for revenue with the major hotels that the tourists are used to across the strait.
"Although guesthouses don't have a rating system, you can see the differences from price and services provided," said association general secretary Lee Ching-sung. "Some guesthouses will provide dinner and breakfast with a night's stay, and the price will reflect the facilities and services provided."
To keep numbers in check, the National Palace Museum now limits visitors to 2,800 at any given time, and in October it extended its opening hours to 9pm from 6.30pm, with free admission for Taiwanese.
The museum's admissions rose from 3.85 million in 2011 to a high of 4.36 million last year.
It is impossible to limit the number of visitors to Taroko National Park, as the main road through it is also a cross-island highway. The managers of the park, which drew 3.63 million visitors last year - 40 per cent from the mainland - ask bus tours to visit lesser-known landmarks to keep pressure off the major sites and they steer independent travellers to hiking trails, a park administration guide said.
Some tour operators that use the park play videos reminding mainland visitors to respect nature and be polite to others.
Taiwan's government still maintains limits on the number of mainland tourists it allows in, citing concerns over illegal overstaying and undercover political activity. But the limits have risen since 2008 under pressure from the travel industry.
Individual travel is capped at 1,000 visitors a day but reached a daily average of just 523 last year, because only residents of the mainland's top-tier cities can apply. Getting the 500 yuan travel permit takes about a month. But Taiwan is about to raise its group limit to 7,000 tourists a day.
"The Tourism Bureau has a policy to maintain quality, so it will control numbers, but that has led to a reaction from souvenir shops and coach operators," said Anthony Liao, an official with the Taipei Association of Travel Agents. "They want more than the max."