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Politics

China freezes permits for individual travel to Taiwan

Authorities blame state of cross-strait relations for the clampdown

A panda exhibit in Taipei: Individual travelers, as opposed to group tours, account for about half of mainland visitors to Taiwan.   © AP

HONG KONG/TAIPEI -- China is banning individual citizens from visiting Taiwan from Thursday, due to the state of cross-strait relations, Beijing's Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced on Wednesday, a move that will hit the island's service industry. 

The new rule states that residents of 47 mainland cities are no longer allowed to traveled to the self-ruled island without signing up to tour groups. Taiwan received over 1 million individual visitors from those cities last year, accounting for about 40% of all arrivals from the mainland.

The decision follows an arms deal worth $2.2 billion agreed between Taiwan and the U.S. Earlier in July, the U.S. State Department approved a possible sale of M1A2T Abrams tanks, Stinger missiles and related equipment.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's mid-July visit to New York -- en route to Taiwan's diplomatic allies in the Caribbean -- also irked Beijing.

Several travel agents in China told the Nikkei Asian Review that they halted business involving individual travel permits for Taiwan on Wednesday after receiving instructions from authorities. Fliggy.com, an online travel platform under Alibaba Group Holding, also suspended such services for individuals but is still accepting applications for group travel.

The arrangement that allows individual mainlanders to visit Taiwan was approved by both sides in 2011. Initially confined to residents of Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen, it was broadened to 47 municipalities over the years.

To make the trip, a mainland citizen must obtain a permit from China's Bureau of Exit and Entry Administration, under the Ministry of Public Security. A visa from Taiwan's government is also required.

The visa application process on Taipei's side remains unchanged, according to staff at several travel agencies contacted by Nikkei.

Beijing's sudden decision will hit Taiwan's service industry, as Chinese tourists to Taiwan accounted for nearly 30% of the total in the first six months of this year, said Gordon Sun, director of the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research.

"Taiwan's service industry, which relies heavily on tourism, will feel the pain from August going forward," said Sun.

Nantou and Chiayi in the south, and Hualien in the east will be hit particularly hard, given they are popular travel destinations for the Chinese. "Many people from central and southern Taiwan, especially in the middle to lower classes, will be affected," Sun said.

The number of Chinese tourists grew 28% on the year to 1.67 million in the first half of 2019. The Taiwanese government, controled by Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party, on Monday forecast the number could reach more than 3 million by the end of the year. If such momentum was kept, the figure eventually would have returned to around the level of 2016, at 3.6 million, the year the pro-independent Tsai was elected as president. 

Beijing's decision has prompted concerns in Taiwan.

Taiwan's Presidential Office said in a statement: "We are sorry to see China unilaterally placing restrictions [on issuing visas]."

The statement criticized China for interfering in the daily life and plans of ordinary people. It said that such an action does not help "increase understanding of two sides of the strait."

Kaohsiung City Government issued a statement on behalf of Mayor Han Kuo-yu, Kuomintang's presidential candidate, stating he was "highly concerned" about China's announcement.

"It will dampen Taiwan's tourism industry, which is already facing challenges," the statement said. "It proves that the peaceful stability of cross-strait relationship is important to Taiwan." It added: "Taiwanese people are not equal to the [pro-independent] Democratic Progressive Party."

China's foreign ministry spokesperson declined to comment on the decision at a news conference on Wednesday. China's Taiwan Affairs Office also declined to comment when contacted by Nikkei.

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