Thousands of tourism industry workers took to the streets in Taiwan today, demanding the government address a slump in visitors from China as cross-strait ties deteriorate.
Operators who had previously benefited from a boom in mainland tourists under former President Ma Ying-jeou’s Beijing-friendly government are now only getting a fraction of the business as relations with China grow increasingly frosty under new president Tsai Ing-wen.
The number of visitors from China has dropped almost 24 per cent in the months since Beijing-sceptic Tsai took office in May, compared with the same period last year, according to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council.
While Beijing has not publicly said it is seeking to limit tourists to the island, observers say it is a stealth pressure tactic on Tsai.
Those working in the tourism sector say anti-China rhetoric from the Taiwanese public is also turning away visitors who feel they are not welcome.
“In the beginning it may have been Beijing interfering,” said Ma Ching-chung, who heads an association of tour bus operators in New Taipei City.
“But later on it became the mainland tourists themselves who didn’t want to come,” he told AFP at today’s protest in the capital Taipei.
As many as 10,000 people, from tour guides to bus drivers and restaurant workers, gathered in front of the Presidential Office demanding Tsai take action.
They waved placards with slogans such as “No job, no life” and “Cross-strait is one family” while chanting “We need to survive.”
“Tsai Ing-wen should proactively reach out to China to negotiate,” said 43-year-old tour guide Carol Ku, who says she has not worked for a month.
“Going forward, tourism won’t be the only sector to be affected,” she said.
Chinese visitors accounted for about 40 percent of the total 10 million tourists to Taiwan last year, according to government figures.
The biggest slump in visitors from mainland China is those arriving with tour groups — a plunge of 40.6 percent.
That has hit the tea shop where Maggie Huang works in Alishan in central Taiwan, well known for its mountainous views and tea farms.
Huang, who is in her forties, says her shop used to be visited by as many as 30 mainland tour groups a day. Yesterday, they had none.
“We don’t care about politics. We are just normal citizens trying to make a living,” she said.
Tsai’s government has said it is seeking to attract more tourists from Southeast Asia to make up the shortfall, but Huang is not optimistic.
“To have to learn totally new languages, it’s very difficult,” she said.
The cabinet last week approved a Tw$30 billion ($948 million) bailout for the tourism sector that includes loan extensions and assistance for the unemployed.
Taiwan is self-ruling but China still sees it as part of its territory to be reunited.
Beijing is highly sceptical of Tsai’s traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and has cut all official communications with Taiwan in recent months.