Chinese visitors to Taiwan may surpass Japanese for the first time on record as relaxed rules spur travel to an island off limits to mainlanders for 60 years.
Taiwan will receive 1.2 million tourists and businesspeople from China, exceeding the forecast 1.13 million Japanese in 2010, Yuan Kai-zhi, who works at the tourism bureau’s international division in Taipei, said in an interview. Japan, which ruled Taiwan for 50 years until its defeat in World War II, has been the No. 1 source of visitors since records began in 1964.
The island dropped a ban on Chinese tourists in July 2008, two months after President Ma Ying-jeou took office and abandoned his predecessor’s pro-independence stance. The almost 200,000 Chinese that visited during the remainder of that year soared five-fold in 2009 as people seized the opportunity to cross the 180 kilometer (112 mile) Taiwan Strait.
“People are curious about the things that have been prohibited to them,” said Christopher Wong, a Hong-Kong based economist at HSBC Holdings Plc. “Chinese and Taiwanese have a similar cultural background and speak the same language, and that makes travel more easy.”
Ma’s Nationalist Party, whose leaders fled to Taiwan in 1949 after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists, severed transportation ties with the mainland that year. China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory, has more than 1,000 missiles pointed at the island to stave off any moves toward formal independence. Taiwan issues visas for Chinese tourist groups, not individuals.
“I’ve been everywhere in the world, except Taiwan,” Chen Wen-zheng, 63, who practices Chinese medicine in Shanghai, said as he arrived at Taipei 101, the world’s second-tallest building. “I was curious and wanted to experience it in person.”
Taiwan received 197,987 Chinese visitors in 2008, just 5 percent of the total that year, Yuan, who is section chief of the tourism bureau’s international affairs division, said in an interview in Taipei last week. That jumped to nearly 1 million in 2009, or about 22 percent of the total 4.4 million visitors.
Any move by China to end its currency’s peg to the dollar may help further spur tourist visits. An unscheduled meeting between U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan in Beijing on April 8 fueled speculation that the yuan’s 21-month-old peg at about 6.83 per dollar may be scrapped.
“A stronger currency will boost domestic consumption as well as out-bound tourism,” said Wong of HSBC.
Chinese visitors surpassing their Japanese counterparts reflects the change in the balance of economic power in Asia, with China projected to overtake Japan as the world’s second-biggest economy this year. In 2009, China’s gross domestic product was $4.9 trillion, compared with Japan’s $5.1 trillion.
Taiwan last year sought to boost its international profile as a tourist destination amid the economy’s deepest recession.
The island spent a record amount on a global campaign in 2009, said Christine Lai, deputy director at the tourism bureau’s international affairs division, declining to specify the figure. That included advertisements on CNN and British Broadcasting Corp. channels targeting businesspeople and professionals.
Taiwan’s economy expanded 9.2 percent in the three months through December after five consecutive quarters of contraction. China’s economic growth accelerated to the fastest pace in almost three years in the first quarter, expanding 11.9 percent from a year earlier.
Lower air fares may also encourage more Chinese to see sites in Taiwan such as Mount Jade, the tallest mountain in East Asia. China Airlines, Taiwan’s biggest air carrier, will cut fares on cross-strait direct flights by 20 percent, the United Daily News reported April 8.
“I’m old and I don’t have much time left,” said Lin Mei-lin, 72, a retired school teacher who lives in Ningbo, Zhejiang, who also spoke outside Taipei 101. “I’ve always wanted to see Taiwan but was unable to do so, now I finally could see it myself. Taiwan is easy for old people like me because the food, culture and language are similar.”