“I’ll tell you the most honest truth, there is no business operator who will say they don’t want mainland tourists,” said Huang, who has run the hotel for eight years. “They are willing to spend money. Their spending habits are not the same as others.”
While Taiwanese tour operators are excited about a boom in foreign arrivals since the island’s border began reopening, many must still get by on less income than in pre-pandemic times, because of the mainland’s 2019 ban on letting self-guided tourists visit Taiwan and Taiwan’s ban on group tours a year later.
Hotels, retailers and travel agencies are feeling a “big impact” because the mainland was a “major source” of tourism before 2019, said Bian Chieh-min, general manager of Phoenix Tours in Taipei and a former board member of a Taiwanese travel association.
About 9,500 tour guides, 2,800 travel agencies and 3,400 hotels operate in Taiwan. Many survived the pandemic on government subsidies and domestic tourism. Some shut down. Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau logged no mainland tourist arrivals from August through November last year as it began rolling back border controls.
In the same four months of 2018, before the ban on non-group travellers took effect, Taiwan received 924,812 mainlanders, and it saw 610,881 over the same period in 2019. Kenting was widely considered one of the top five must-visit spots among mainland travellers to Taiwan.
Kenting’s usual off-season for tourists came to a near full stop in early January this year for lack of mainland visitors, according to hoteliers and shopkeepers. Birdsong and the crashing of waves overpowered the usual traffic noise in urbanised parts of the 333 sq km (128-square-mile) park.
Mainland officials cited overall relations between the two sides when they banned individual travel to Taiwan in August 2019. Beijing views self-ruled Taiwan as part of China to be unified, by force if necessary. Two-way talks between the sides broke down in 2016.
Taiwan banned tour groups from the mainland and other parts of the world after Covid-19 broke out in 2020.
The manager of a 40-year-old beachwear store under the Blue Bay guest house in Kenting says mostly Taiwanese people now visit the row of shops, cafes and inns around her. But they drive their own cars, which are pre-packed with their own clothes and shoes, said the manager, Wu Poh. “Before, we got independent travellers from China,” she said.
Some of those travellers would shell out NT$500 on spending sprees, and mainland shoppers came almost every day, Wu said. “They liked the quality of Taiwan’s clothing brands,” she said.
Mainland Chinese tourists made “quite an impact” as they rented electric scooters, stayed in hostels and rented tour buses, said Chris Hsia, operator of a guest house along one of Kenting’s surfing beaches.
Mainland Chinese have withdrawn in other ways, as well. The island’s Investment Commission approved just US$35 million in the first 11 months of last year, and US$46 million during the same period in 2021. Approved investments had reached US$126 million in all of 2020, and there was nearly US$100 million in 2019.
And according to the Taiwan Ministry of the Interior’s Department of Land Administration, just 24 mainland Chinese bought property in Taiwan last year. The figure was 27 in 2021, 66 in 2019 and 72 in 2020.
Mainlanders’ spending in tourism, however, “feels like a quick-money business”, Hsia said, noting that many merchants became overly dependent on this single source of revenue. And for the sake of diversification, he said it may be “a good thing that we don’t open up” to mainland tourists just yet. His five-room Summer Point inn now relies largely on guests from Taiwan, Japan and Western countries.
Some tourism operators expect travellers from Japan, Europe, North America and parts of Southeast Asia to backfill the loss of mainland visitors.
The number of Japanese visitors rose from 5,653 in August to 21,204 in November, the most recent month tabulated. The 6,337 European visitors who came in August had risen to 13,185 by November, the latest month with available figures.
In late 2019, before the pandemic erased nearly all inbound tourism, European visitors numbered 29,100 to 41,837 per month. Japanese, meanwhile, contributed close to 200,000 each month from August to November 2019.
“We’ve seen more foreigners, more Europeans, and the contrast is quite striking,” Huang said. “Foreigners would come during the pandemic because they already lived in Taiwan. We’re now actually seeing people who come just to travel.”
Since late last year, Taipei-based travel agency KKday has resumed its pre-pandemic focus on Japanese, Korean and Southeast Asian visitors. “After the border reopening of Taiwan and Japan in October, [we’ve seen] outstanding sales performance in the Taiwan market,” said the agency’s public relations manager, Dennis Lin.
Young, white-collar travellers from those countries are drawn to Taiwan for its food, street safety, nearby proximity, affordable goods and abundant natural scenery, Lin said.
Some Taiwanese hotels and travel agents never depended much on mainland tourists before 2019. Bunun Village, an indigenous-culture-themed mountain resort in southeastern Taiwan, seldom received mainland group tours, because just getting there would take a full day out of a packed group itinerary, said resort director Ling Wu.
The resort’s offshore clientele comes more often from Japan, Singapore, South Korea and the United States, Ling said. Forty people arrived on one tour from Singapore in December, she noted. “Everybody’s looking at post-Lunar New Year to see if there’s a better chance here in Taiwan”, she said, referring to the holiday that runs from January 20-29 this year.
In Kenting, the founder of True Hub guest house, Hsiao Yu-min, has seen progress since he opened the five-room inn four months ago, just before Taiwan ended border controls more than two years after the national park stopped receiving a steady influx of mainlanders.
Mainland Chinese began coming after 2008, when the two sides signed deals to allow tourism along with direct flights.
But the Japanese-style, environment-themed True Hub still sees mostly locals, which by itself is “no way” to run a business due to Taiwan’s relatively small population, Hsiao said.
“We welcome anyone in the world to come, no matter where they’re from,” he said.
The government’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications anticipates a return to pre-pandemic tourism levels by 2024.
“Taiwan’s recognition has gone up, it’s true,” said Bian with Phoenix Tours. “Its profile has been raised, but we’ve got to wait before that parlays into more tourists.”