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Taiwan sees fewer tourists as Chinese stay away

TAIPEI, Taiwan – Visitor numbers to Taiwan fell in the 1st quarter of 2017, dragged down by a 42% plunge in arrivals from China as relations worsen across the strait.

The number of Chinese tourists to the island has dropped since Beijing-skeptic President Tsai Ing-wen took office last May, with speculation China is turning off the taps as a pressure tactic.

Beijing – which sees self-ruled Taiwan as still part of its territory – is wary of Tsai's party, which traditionally advocates independence from China.

The January-March quarter saw the total number of visitors fall 10% to 2.54 million from last year, according to data from the Tourism Bureau.

Increases from other areas including Southeast Asia were not enough to offset the steep fall in Chinese visitors, which plummeted to 659,575 in the quarter from 1.14 million.

Tourism operators attribute the decline to a more negative portrayal of Taiwan in Chinese media and scaled back promotion of tours by major Chinese travel agencies.

"The tension in cross-strait relations definitely affects their desire to visit and spend in Taiwan," said Ringo Lee, a spokesman for the Travel Agent Association of Taiwan.

Lee added that most visits by mainland officials have also halted.

"The approach is both bottom-up and also top-down," he told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday, May 17.

The drop in visitor numbers in the 1st quarter follows a record high last year, which saw 10.69 million arrivals.

Tsai has been pushing a strategy to expand ties with Southeast Asian countries, including tourism, in a bid to reduce reliance on China. 

But critics say the Southeast Asian market is too small to expect it to catch up anytime soon.

Chinese visitors accounted for about 33% of the total in 2016, the biggest group, while those from Southeast Asia including Malaysia and Singapore made up 15%.

Taiwan had seen a boom in mainland tourists under former Beijing-friendly president Ma Ying-jeou, who oversaw 8 years of cross-strait rapprochement and trade deals. 

But voters wary of closer China ties led to Tsai's victory last January. – Rappler.com