TAIPEI -- Mainland Chinese tourists are returning to Taiwan, hinting at a possible reversal of Beijing's policy intended to pressure the island's ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, led by Tsai Ing-wen.
The Chinese government restricted travel to the island after the party came to power in May 2016. But the number of mainland tourists to Taiwan increased year on year for four straight months to November, signaling a rebound.
It is possible that Beijing adjusted its strategy after seeing little desired effect the restrictions had on the Tsai government as tourist numbers from other countries, such as South Korea, started to grow.
According to Taiwan's Tourism Bureau, the number of mainland Chinese tourists grew year on year for the first time in 16 months in August last year, the first uptick since Tsai was elected leader. The figure grew by over 20% for two straight months, in October and November.
During the eight years under the previous, pro-mainland leadership of Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party, known as Kuomintang, the number of tourists from mainland China grew more than tenfold. In 2015, the figure reached some 4.2 million, accounting for about 40% of all tourists to the island.
But the number suddenly dropped sharply after Tsai came to power. The new leader does not accept Beijing's "One China" principle, a view that China has sovereignty over Taiwan.
Beijing controls how many tourists can visit Taiwan from the mainland, depending on the situation between the mainland and the island.
But tourists from other places unexpectedly grew in number to partly offset the drop in those from mainland China. Overall, tourists to Taiwan fell only slightly. In particular, the number of South Koreans increased significantly, rising by 34% in 2016 from a year before to just under 900,000. The trend continued in 2017.
Many believe that more South Koreans chose Taiwan for holidays for fear of Beijing's retaliatory measures against Seoul's decision to allow U.S. forces to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system.
Tourists from Malaysia and the Philippines are also on the increase. The Tsai government is stepping up efforts to attract travelers to Taiwan in an effort to reduce Taiwan's dependence on the mainland, by for example expanding its 30-day visa waiver program for tourists from Southeast Asian countries.
While President Xi Jinping reiterated his hard-line approach toward the Tsai government at the Chinese Communist Party's congress in October, Xi also indicated his willingness to share mainland China's development with the people of Taiwan.