News / Asia

Mainland Chinese Begin Visiting Taiwan

The first individual Chinese tourists hold up gift bags as they arrive at the Songshan airport in downtown Taipei, Taiwan,  June 28, 2011
The first individual Chinese tourists hold up gift bags as they arrive at the Songshan airport in downtown Taipei, Taiwan, June 28, 2011
Ralph Jennings

Taiwan has for the first time begun allowing mainland Chinese travelers to visit on their own, outside of tour groups. The new policy beginning Tuesday is expected to help the island’s economy and ease political tension between the two long-time rivals by bringing people closer together.

Many people in mainland China believe that Taiwan belongs to their government and they still long to see its fabled mountain attractions or soak up its traditional Chinese culture. But they have been barred from visiting, except on restrictive group tours, because self-ruled Taiwan feared some would come as spies or overstay their travel permits. Beijing has never renounced using force against Taiwan if it veers toward formal independence.

Similarities on display

Mainland Chinese colloquially call Taiwan a “treasure island” for its high mountains, tropical beaches and traditional Chinese culture weakened on the mainland by decades of Communist rule.

Thirty-year-old Lin Baijia came to Taiwan with three friends from the nearby Chinese city Xiamen to see the basics. She’s one of the first independent travelers and already plans to come back.

Lin says this time they will visit major attractions such as Sun Moon Lake and mountainous Alishan. Being from a nearby part of China, they are upbeat about Taiwan, especially the similar language and warmth of local people. She hopes to return to Taiwan as time allows, since it’s legal and transportation is easy, to explore it in more depth.

A travel agent gave the group of friends a bit of information on Taiwan, but they will roam about as they wish. That way they can experience Taiwanese people’s habits, their pace of life and whether they differ from people back home.

Taiwan opened to mainland group tours after political tensions began to ease in 2008 through trade talks brokered by Taiwan’s China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou. That brought 2.34 million visitors and pumped $3.8 billion into the struggling service sector while causing few headaches for the Taiwanese government. To expand on the economic benefits, Taiwan opened this month to individual travelers from increasingly wealthy China.

Advancing China's goal

Political observers say letting tourists roam as they please will go over well with officials in Beijing, which encourages contact between the two sides to emphasize that both belong to the same race and can get along despite fears or stereotypes. They say stronger people-to-people ties would advance China’s goal of eventual political unification more than six decades after Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists and fled to Taiwan.

Chinese group tourists often complain that group tours allow too little free time, a measure to discourage illegal activity. Some get bused away so fast that they can’t see the regionally fabled  Alishan sunrise or digest the vast Chinese art collection at Taipei’s National Palace Museum.

Taiwan’s tourism bureau says it expects the newly independent tourists will linger in high mountains, tiny villages and urban back alleys with hallmarks of old Chinese culture such as temple fairs. Tourist Lai Zhengyi looked forward to that freedom as he deplaned in Taipei.

The company executive from Xiamen says solo travelers can go anywhere they want without dealing with the legal restrictions of guided tours. Now he can travel in Taiwan like he would anywhere else in the world, which will help Taiwan’s overall economic development. He plans to visit Sun Moon Lake, a Taiwan landmark known to most mainland Chinese, and its exclusive Lalu Hotel. He says he also wants to check out what is available to purchase in local real estate.

Lai joined 282 others from China on Tuesday in starting their solo trips around the island. Rules allow for as many as 500 per day, with limits of 15 days per person. So far officials say the program is still a trial, but excitement about the program has led some to consider opening the island’s restrictive parliament sessions to individual tourists so they can see democracy in action.

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