Playing politics? Chinese tourism under scrutiny as Lunar New Year nears

Visitors from mainland down sharply for South Korea and Taiwan at a time of tensions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 10:55pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2017, 11:09pm

With six million mainland tourists expected to travel abroad over the Lunar New Year break, the holiday from January 27 to February 2 is crucial for Taiwanese tour agency operator Li Chi-yueh.

He relies on mainland visitors for a third of his revenue, but his hopes are not high this year, after the number of such tourists plummeted 36 per cent since President Tsai Ing-wen took power in May.

Though Tsai says Taiwan wants peaceful cross-strait ties, Beijing suspects that she seeks formal independence.

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“China uses its sightseeing tourists as a diplomatic weapon,” said Li, owner of the Taipei-based Chung Shin Travel Service, who has been representing tour operators to lobby Tsai to improve ties with Beijing. “There’s a lot of concern that the industry won’t survive if we carry on like this.”

The concern is not confined to Taiwan – tour operators and government officials elsewhere in Asia say they fear Beijing is using its increasingly high-spending tourists as a lever to pressure or reward its neighbours.

A government official from South Korea – which has irked China by agreeing to let the United States deploy an anti-missile system – said Chinese and Korean tour companies had told him the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) had instructed Chinese agencies to cut tours to South Korea by at least 20 per cent between November and February.

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“This is not a win-win situation – it is mutually disadvantageous. But what can we do? As far as defence is concerned, we have no room to compromise,” the official said, declining to be named.

Chinese companies told him the measure was designed to cut an excessive number of low-quality, low-priced tours for Chinese tourists visiting Korea, the official said. The CNTA did not respond to requests for comment.

The number of Chinese tourists visiting South Korea inched up 1.8 per cent year on year in ­November, versus a 70.2 per cent increase in August and a 22.8 per cent rise in September.

China has not said it was seeking to limit tourists to South Korea or Taiwan to express displeasure at political disputes.

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For Taiwan, Beijing has said it was natural that mainland tourists were choosing not to visit at a time of political uncertainly.

By contrast, the Philippines and Malaysia are enjoying strong growth in numbers of Chinese tourists as Beijing removes travel warnings and eases visa rules.

Both countries have been moving diplomatically closer to Beijing in recent months.