TAIPEI -- About 10,000 tourism workers marched in rainy downtown Taipei on Monday, demanding that the administration of pro-independence President Tsai Ing-wen improve ties with Beijing and voicing fears that the continuous fall in the number of Chinese visitors would undermine their livelihoods.
Protesters shouted: "We want jobs, we want to survive, we want to food on our tables!" They waved banners that read: "The two sides (across the Taiwan Strait) belong to the same family" and "No job, no life." Some said the drop in the number of Chinese tourists was much higher than the officials claimed.
Government figures showed Chinese tour groups dropped by around 30% year-on-year between May and mid-July. Taiwanese media reported in March that Chinese officials had urged travel companies to curtail group tours in retaliation for the election of Tsai.
The news of the tragic death of 24 Chinese tourists trapped in a bus that caught fire enroute to the airport in northern Taiwan in July also had not helped. On Sept. 10, Taiwanese prosecutors pinned the blame on the deceased Taiwanese bus driver and said he killed himself over personal difficulties by setting fire to the vehicle.
Overall, the Taiwanese government said that the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan grew less than 1% year-on-year to 2.38 million in the January-July period, with a 15% decline in July from the same month last year.
By contrast, tourists from South Korea and Japan grew 29% and 17% year-over-year respectively in the first seven months of 2016. Visitors excluding Chinese tourists reached 3.87 million, increasing around 13% on year in the same period.
Chou Long, who runs a shop selling jade mainly to Chinese tourists, urged the Tsai administration to find a way to work with Beijing soon.
"We have seen a more than 50% to 60% decline in revenue as well as in the number of tourists year-over-year since May. If the drought continues, half of the shops would be going out of business very soon," Chou said.
A tour guide who gave her surname as Su said: "A lot of Chinese tour groups have cancelled trips with very short notice. Most of us do not have work to do for more than three months now and we are suffering very badly."
Su said that typically, around 160-170 groups of Chinese tourists would visit every month, and during the peak season, the figure would surge to as high as 300-400 groups. But now, only about 10 groups visit each month.
Another tour guide surnamed Yang told Taiwan's tabloid Apple Daily that Tsai should recognize "92 Consensus" as demanded by Beijing to maintain a steady inflow of Chinese visitors.
"92 Consensus" is a highly controversial principle that Tsai's Beijing-friendly predecessor Ma Ying-jeou championed and Chinese officials see as Taipei's commitment to eventual unification.
But relations between Taiwan and China have cooled significantly following Tsai's inauguration in May, due to her refusal to recognize "92 Consensus." Chinese officials have suspended high-level talks since, but not low-level administrative exchanges.
On Monday, newly appointed senior Chinese negotiator Tien Hung-mao said that he was "sympathetic" to the predicament of the local tourism sector although he said it would take time to resolve the current stalemate.
"There is always a solution to every problem and I hope that the two sides will resolve the differences in a peaceful manner," Tien said when he was sworn in as chief of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation early in September.
Taiwanese Premier Lin Chuan announced last week that the government would help the local tourism sector by attracting more visitors from other regions and offering 30 billion New Taiwan dollars ($944 million) in low-interest loans to tour operators for them to improve services and products.