What 60-Year Chill? Chinese Tourists Flock to Taiwan

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Nicky Loh / Reuters

Tourists from China wave as they arrive on a cruise ship in the northern Taiwan port of Keelung on March 16, 2009

"We love Taiwan!" shouted a group of Chinese Amway employees as they disembarked their cruise ship and walked along a long red carpet flanked by a colorful dragon dance in Taiwan's Keelung harbor. The enthusiastic gang — 12,000 of them will arrive on nine different ships by the end of this spring — and Taiwan's eager welcome are a symbol of the vibrant new ties being formed (and bank notes being exchanged) between China and Taiwan. Chinese tourists have not been allowed in Taiwan for the past 60 years because of tensions between China and Taiwan, a democratic island that China claims as its own.

Not until last July, that is, when Taipei and Beijing agreed to start direct flights between Taiwan and China and open up tourism on the island to 3,000 Chinese visitors every day. The direct flights were a relief to the four million Taiwanese who travel to China every year, cutting a seven-hour slog to Shanghai, which had to be made through a third city like Hong Kong, to an 80-minute trip. The floodgates opened the other way, too: at first, a trickle of some 200 Chinese tourists each day in August, and now, seven months later, a pouring in at the maximum number of 3000 every day in April. (See pictures from a day in the life of Taiwan's former president.)

"Taiwan tourism has just opened up and everyone wants to see what it's really like here," said Ms. Chen, a tourist from Fujian who declined to give her first name. "We've heard so much about it. That it's a beautiful place." So Chen and thousands like her visit the Sun Moon Lake and Ali Mountain — places that they read about as children in China but had always been forbidden to see. With them, they are bringing business to restaurants and manufacturers of typical souvenirs like mountain tea, fruit products, and, a particular favorite, the National Palace Museum's jadeite cabbage. "It's been decades since we've seen each other, we wanted to see our comrades," said an elderly man surnamed Jia. His friend chimed in: "The people here are more civilized. That's the truth. They're well-educated and have truly kept the essence of Chinese culture."

Still, the new era of mutual enthusiasm is delicate. Though no frictions have been reported between tourists and locals, several Chinese visitors told TIME that the same beautiful, civilized island they were enjoying is very much still "a part of the motherland" — with which, eventually, they hope to be "united." Only 5% of Taiwanese support unification, according to a March survey, with a full 20% encouraging the island to push for independence from China. "The Chinese always avoid taking pictures with the Taiwanese flag," says Political Scientist Yang Tai-Shuenn of Taipei's Chinese Culture University. "That may insult the Taiwanese people." One 63-year old tourist caused a stir in the Taiwanese media by carving his name and Chinese town in large characters on a rock on a famous stretch of Taiwan's coast. Eventually, the Chinese media shamed into making a public apology. "I'm not very cultured. I didn't know I was making a serious mistake," the Yangtse Evening Paper reported the man saying. "My daughter and wife have scolded me, and I'm very sorry for what I did."

Most Taiwanese are willing to forgive, given the cash even the clumsier tourists are bringing. Some estimate that mainland guests could inject over $200 million a year into Taiwan's tourism industry. Tourism bureau official Philip Chao says the Chinese are pretty big spenders, averaging nearly $300 a day, just shy of the Japanese who spend over $300. And, he says, tourism is the ideal starting point to renew mutual understanding. At the Sun Yat Sen Memorial gift shop, the clerk who encounters many Chinese tourists during her day there described the mood to be like a family reunion. "We should have done this a long time ago. We are the same blood," the clerk, who declined to give her name, said. "Politics does not need to be decisive. We can all get along." President Ma evidently agrees. "We want to make friends with them," Ma said last year when he was promoting the concept of Chinese tourism to his constituents. Today in Taipei, many seem to think Ma was right. Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to invite the Chinese to eat, shop, and be merry.

Read what to do if you have one night in Taipei.