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Tourists Join Taiwan-China Thaw
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A wave of mainland Chinese tourists here this summer has China and Taiwan on their best behavior, as de facto ambassadors on both sides take pains to minimize awkward moments.
In one Taiwanese town, local officials took down an anti-Beijing billboard. Officials here are stepping carefully around the title of Taiwan's president to avoid reminding the tourists that the island considers itself independent of China.
For its part, China has told tourists to dress nicely and be civil. At the same time, it has asked that locations related to late anticommunist leader Chiang Kai-shek be kept off a list of tour sites.
At stake is a recent thaw in relations between China and the island it has long considered a breakaway province. Taiwan's elections this year swept in a new president keen to improve relations with Beijing, leading to the first formal talks in nine years between the two sides.
Easing tourist restrictions was one major result. The two governments in June agreed to allow as many as 3,000 tourists from China into Taiwan daily, a pace with the potential to lead to roughly one million mainland visitors a year -- though there is some disagreement about how many tourists are actually being allowed. Previously, Chinese tourists could come to the island only indirectly, via stops in places like Thailand or Hong Kong. Only about 293,000 have visited in the past six years, according to Taiwanese government figures. Taiwanese tourists have been visiting China in droves for many years.
China's move is partly an attempt to win points with Taiwanese by boosting the island's tourism industry. The change could create US$2.5 billion to US$3.2 billion in annual tourism revenue, the Taiwanese government estimates. President Ma Ying-jeou, who took office in May, suggests 40,000 new jobs would be created.
The new system presents both China and Taiwan with a tricky task: Ensuring smooth visits.
The first group under the system, composed of 66 tourists from the mainland province of Guangdong, arrived on July 4 for a 10-day stay. The tourists were kept in a group on a tightly controlled itinerary for most of the day. Taiwanese officials made sure the brochures printed for the tourists were in the simplified Chinese script adopted by China in the past few decades but scorned by Taiwan, which continues to use traditional Chinese. Authorities also discouraged demonstrations.
Officials of one town took down a billboard erected by the Falun Gong, a spiritual group critical of and banned by Beijing. The billboard touted a Falun Gong book that criticized China's Communist Party for human-rights violations. Local officials said they removed the billboard because it was constructed illegally, not because of its content. A Falun Gong spokeswoman said, 'The move is about self-censorship, and it is a setback for democracy.'
The tourists still faced awkward moments. Taiwanese officials were careful to refer to the island's leader in front of the tourists as 'Mr. Ma' rather than 'President Ma' to avoid bringing up Taiwan's independence. But among the gifts presented to the tourists upon their arrival was a set of stamps bearing Mr. Ma's likeness. Local reporters asked a mainland tourist who received the set whether she knew his title. She declined to answer.
Other potentially red-faced moments passed smoothly. One stop on the first tour was the National Palace Museum, home to a number of Chinese artifacts the Nationalists brought with them when they fled China in 1949. Some in China have pushed for their return. Zhong Yuchin, a 40-year-old teacher from the mainland city of Suzhou, said the issue isn't an important one. 'This shouldn't be a problem. Here is part of the motherland, too,' she said.
Most Chinese tourists in the first group emphasized the island's familiarity, as they have heard of the customs, food, vistas and even politics of Taiwan for years. 'I feel so lucky to visit the island,' said Bai Chengruei, a 71-year-old retired researcher from Beijing. 'I have seen so many scenes I have learned from TV.'
Another big draw: Taiwanese television. The nation's broadcasters carry a number of shows that criticize Taiwan's president and senior officials. Some guests told others to stay in hotels to watch TV in the evenings, according to their Taiwanese tour guides.