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International relations

Chinese tourists to Taiwan plunge 60% in September

Beijing's move to ban travel to island fans resentment among residents

Taiwan's tourist spots, such as the scenic streets of Jiufen, have been hit by a sharp decrease of Chinese travelers. (Photo by Kensaku Ihara)

TAIPEI -- Beijing's move to punish Taiwan's autonomous ambitions by restricting travel to the island has resulted in a plunge in tourists from the mainland, but China’s strong-arm tactic could end up backfiring as public resentment grows.

Mainland Chinese visitors to Taiwan numbered 62,462 last month, according to Taiwan's National Immigration Agency, a 57% drop from a year earlier. China imposed a ban on individual travel permits in August.

China's State Council later confirmed that "Taiwan independence" activities led by the island's ruling Democratic Progressive Party were the reason behind the travel ban. The DPP "destroyed the foundation and conditions for individual travel," said a spokesman.

Because those who held permits before the ban are still able to visit Taiwan, individual travel has not been halted entirely. The travel ban did not cover group travel, though tourism in that category dove 60% as well.

China is stepping up pressure on the DPP and President Tsai Ing-wen, who is campaigning for re-election in January. In September, the Pacific island nations of Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan.

Beijing is believed to favor a victory by the presidential candidate from Kuomintang, the main opposition party that seeks friendlier ties with China.

Chinese tourists are Taiwan's top customers, accounting for roughly one-fourth of overseas visitors.

A man working at a tea house in Jiufen, a popular tourist destination that inspired Hayao Miyazaki's movie "Spirited Away," acknowledges that the situation is tough as "tourists from the mainland have disappeared." Most travel destinations saw no recovery in early October during China's National Day holiday, when the number of mainland tourists typically peaks, deepening the sense of crisis in the tourism industry.

Some are looking for realistic solutions. "We cannot continue to rely on the mainland, so we want to increase visitors from Japan and South Korea," said the owner of a souvenir shop. Given the escalation of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, the public is increasingly concerned about going down the same path as the besieged territory.

"The more pressure China applies, the more distant the Taiwanese people feel from the mainland," said Chang Yu-tzung, a professor at National Taiwan University, noting that Beijing's pressure campaign could backfire.

According to opinion poll results released Friday by major broadcaster TVBS, Tsai led rival Han Kuo-yu by 52% to 39%, widening her advantage to the largest since polls began in July.

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