Taipei to allow more mainland Chinese travellers
In the final part of our two-part series, Taiwan says it will raise the limit for visitors, boosting hopes of inns, restaurants and recreation centres
Ralph Jennings in Taipei
Taiwan will let in more independent travellers from the mainland as attractions ranging from diving to dental work push the headcount near a legal limit of 1,000 arrivals per day.
By the end of next month, the island that once feared that solo mainland travellers would stay to work illegally or spy for Beijing will raise the daily limit to 2,000.
Last year, about 190,000 independent travellers visited Taiwan, or an average of 520 per day. But the number of arrivals scraped 1,000 per day in January and February.
Growth in independent travel reflects an urge on the mainland to see Taiwan's full profile, not just snapshots arranged by a guided tour, or to seek health care that is hard to get at home.
A few people look for property or business deals.
Arrivals give business to out-of-the way inns, restaurants and recreation operators that may struggle to make it on domestic tourism alone.
"I wanted to get a general sense of the whole thing and then return," said Ma Wenjie, a food industry employee from Beijing who spent nine days in Taiwan in November last year.
"My overall sense was pretty good.
"The people were nice. They had an idea about order and courtesy."
Both Taiwan and the mainland are predominantly ethnic Chinese, but curiosity runs high as the two sides cut off most contact in the 1940s. The mainland has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the civil war of that decade, sometimes threatening to take the self-ruled island by military force.
Taiwan opened to regular group tours from the mainland in 2008 after the island's president, Ma Ying-jeou, said he would shelve political differences to make economic, trade and transit deals.
The first batch of independent travellers arrived in July 2011.
Independent travel was slow to take off, so last year Taiwan started allowing travellers from 13 mainland cities, up from the original three.
Taiwan has opened only to certain well-off mainland cities to discourage visa overstays on the relatively wealthy island.
Mainland group tourists still outnumber independent ones. Arrivals totalled 2.58 million last year, most of them documented as tourists, the Taiwan government says.
Tourists will total 2.69 million this year, rising to slightly more than three million next year and nearly 3.56 million in 2015, Daiwa Securities chief Asia economist Sun Mingchun says in a research note.
Although Taiwan's government does not keep records on what independent travellers do or how much they spend, many are presumed to be backpackers taking their time to ply remote coastlines or sample food in urban alleys not found on tourist maps.
Complaints occur - for example, someone sought media coverage over a dental work dispute - but on the whole, independent travel has worked well for Taiwan, said Tourism Bureau spokeswoman Chen Chun-hua.
"You get isolated cases, but overall the market is doing well," Chen said. "The numbers are going up, that's a fact."
This month, Taiwan disease control authorities have increased monitoring of inbound travellers at airports following a number of fatal bird flu cases on the mainland. So far, Taiwan has logged no cases.
Some independent mainland travellers use their language advantage to find their way to bike rentals or diving equipment shops, bringing clientele to smaller operators who see few group tourists.
Outside Taroko National Park, known for its vertical mountain walls, guesthouses normally dependent on local or other Asian tourists now see mainlanders.
"The ones who come will introduce us to their friends," said Yan Ju-yu, a co-owner of the seven-room, aboriginal-themed Crossing the Rainbow Bridge guesthouse. "They call directly from the mainland, and when we ask how they know about us, they say 'word of mouth'."
It still takes some trepidation just to start the trip. Mainland credit cards are not always accepted in Taiwan, nor do legal identification numbers qualify for certain online reservations. Car rentals may be impossible.
A travel permit takes a month to process and costs 500 yuan (HK$625) as a mainland tour agency sends it to a counterpart in Taiwan, which applies to the island's immigration agency and then sends the document back.
"It wasn't difficult, just a lot of trouble," said Wang Daiyue, a Beijing shipping company employee who spent 20,000 yuan to visit Taiwan in October.