What happened to the Chinese tourists Ma promised?
Some attributed Taiwan’s failure to increase the number of tourists from China to the inability to tap into the high spenders in China but I don’t think the key is about business strategy or special links with the Chinese. The KMT has formed this KMT-CCP platform and the party leaders have met and talked several times. Taiwan has been the biggest investor in China and collaborated with their top circle for years. Many of those high up in the KMT are involved in huge investments in China and likely to have been working with the powerful and the wealthy in China for a long time. When it comes to Taiwan, a country that China wants to take over, the problem is more likely to lie with politics.
Let’s start from a pure consumer’s viewpoint. Most Chinese believe that they have more beautiful tourist spots to visit within their own country and Taiwan is just a small island without the kind of shopping facilities in Hong Kong. The main motivation for them to visit Taiwan is actually their curiosity about Taiwan, a territory that they believe to belong to them but was ‘out of bound’ for a long time. As such, not many of them expect to spend big money on a ‘domestic’ trip to a small island no matter how wealthy they are.
More importantly, people tend to forget that China is still a dictatorship and the government has the power to control everything. The market can only be as ‘free’ as the government allows and their people can only travel to other countries if the government approves (Chinese people still can’t travel abroad without permission). In other words, if the Chinese government sends thousands of tourists to Taiwan, Taiwan would get a few thousands; if they cut it off, Taiwan gets nothing, which would then affect the economy. An example of this would be the sharp fall of the shares of casino operators on 19th August due to concerns that the Chinese government may curtail visits by mainlanders to Macau. So it is unwise to place ALL the hopes in China.
At the moment, the Chinese government heavily control and limit the number of tourists to Taiwan as well as the agencies handling applications and they all use Chinese airlines. Taiwan hardly sees the real money. Furthermore, the tour leaders have to ‘love the mother country, follow the rules and fully understand the government’s Taiwan agenda’. One of the main assessment criteria on potential tour leaders is their ‘way of thinking and moral education’. One can detect the Chinese government’s anxiety over what their people may learn from Taiwan’s freedom and the way Taiwanese criticise the government and expose the truth. I remember after Chiu Yi exposed the possible involvement in illegal insider trading of President Chen’s son in law, Chiu got invited to Beijing to talk about democracy and the way he challenged the President’s family. However, the arranged talk was cancelled by Beijing probably because the Chinese government did not want their people to learn from Chiu’s digging and exposure of government affairs and how one can challenge those in power.
(Update) One may question why the Chinese government are not so worried about this when they allow their people to travel to the West where democracy is even more well established. Well, firstly, we don’t know what kind of criteria they use to sift applicants for foreign travel. It seems reasonable to say that a lot of them come from wealthy and powerful backgrounds. Secondly, their government has educated their people that Taiwanese are Chinese and also that western style democracy is not suitable for Chinese and yet the Taiwanese system defies this doctrine. What message might their people pick up?
When faced with people’s anger, Ma Ying-jeou blamed it on the Chinese government for controlling the number of tourists but the reason for this tight control, according to Ma, was that the Chinese government is worried that their tourists’ poor behaviour may give Taiwanese a bad impression of China. I wonder how many potential Chinese tourists would be put off by this remark. Anyway, whatever the reason is, Ma finally acknowledged the crucial point: it is up to the Chinese government, always has been! Then, the question becomes: why did Ma make such a big promise on something he has little control over?
Seeing the way Ma goes against professional advice after he took office, I don’t think that Ma was just dumb and naïve when he proposed to bring in lots of Chinese tourists to boost Taiwan’s economy and exaggerated the amount of potential profit. I am now inclined to believe that his primary goal is unification with China and to get enough Taiwanese to agree to opening up to China without much precaution, he had to make Taiwanese believe that it was a great (if not the only) and harmless economic solution. For the Chinese government, they can continue to ‘work with’ Ma to push Taiwanese to accept their demands by playing with the number of tourists they may allow. So no matter which way to look at it, Taiwanese need to realise the harm (actual and potential), give up on Ma’s promises and the idea of bringing in lots of Chinese tourists and shift their attention back to tourists from other countries, especially Japan.