The President gives "Special Approval" to Mainland Tourists
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
February 14, 2008
A cruise ship carrying over 600 mainland tourists to the south and north of Taiwan provided the local tourism industry a short-term windfall. The increase in business opportunities was gratifying. But more noteworthy was the pomp and circumstance with which the local tourism industry greeted these VIPs, and their mood of desperation. Taiwan's tourism industry has been "waiting for the first swallows of spring" for several years now. The opening up of Taiwan to mainland tourists has always been a case of "much thunder, little rain." Now Chen Shui-bian is claiming credit for granting "special approval" to single shipload of tourists. We cannot help asking: Why should something as mundane as a shipload of tourists require "special approval" by the president? How long will we have to endure this absurd state of affairs?
Allowing mainland tourists to visit Taiwan and normalizing cross-strait tourism is an important plank in the election platforms of both the Ma Ying-jeou and Frank Hsieh camps. Now that A-bian has jumped on the bandwagon and attempting to claim credit, large-scale opening up should be merely a matter of time. But because the island's tourism industry has waited so long and been disappointed so many times in the past, it is adopting a low-keyed attitude.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party is talking about making the pie bigger, promising "many times more tourists." Yet the premier is still the product of Yu Shyi-kun era "Challenge 2008 National Development Plan." At the time pundits noted that if the plan was to be more than empty talk, it had make use of Taiwan's geographical advantages. It would work only if the island was turned into a regional trans-shipment center as soon as possible, and opened up to mainland tourists. But cross-straits relations have never been relaxed. Chen Shui-bian has flip-flopped repeatedly, resulting in cross-strait relations taking one step forward and two steps back. The government has tied the hands of middlemen who could have expedited matters. Opening up the island to mainland tourists has become a rubber check that government officials issue freely without having to make good.
In 2005 the mainland's National Tourism Bureau allowed mainland residents to visit Taiwan, on three conditions. Beijing would work with Taipei to control the total volume. It appeared as if the time had come and conditions were right. But the Mainland Affairs Council and the Ministry of Transportation suddenly demanded "government-to-government" consultations, leading to yet another stalemate. Last year, after Chinese New Year, Chen Shui-bian held a Spring Festival Friendship Tea Party for Taiwan businessmen in Taipei. He personally promised that mainland tourists would soon be allowed to visit Taiwan. As a result the local tourism industry once again made preparations for the mainland's early May "Golden Week." Who knew negotiations would run aground, yet again. The Taiwan stock market's tourism sector has risen and fallen repeatedly with vacillating policy decisions. The tourism industry listened to the government's policy declarations and increased its investments. But each time its hopes were shattered. Its resources were idled. It was caught with no return on its capital. Nor did it have any idea how many more times this would go on. When will promises that mainland tourists will be permitted to come to Taiwan be honored? On the Twelfth of Never?
Taiwan is "Formosa," a beautiful island, a humane and vibrant place. It has enormous potentional as a tourist destination. It ranks high in the World Economic Forum national tourism competitiveness index. Taiwan's natural beauty earned the Chicago Sun-Times tourism column's praise: "well worth spending 14 hours to fly from Chicago." The column also praised the people as friendly and courteous. On the other hand, based on actual income from tourism among Asian countries, the Taiwan region ranked only ninth. This was less than many neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. One reason is that in its effort to promote tourism the government has failed to do its homework. It failed to properly market Taiwan's selling points. But the real issue is the government's Closed Door Policy. Taiwan is separated from the mainland by nothing but the Taiwan Strait, yet one cannot fly non-stop to the opposite shore. This makes it impossible for Taiwan to become a connection point for cross-strait tourism. This squanders Taiwan's three biggest advantages: location, location, location, and has created additional obstacles to the promotion of bi-directional cross-straits tourism and international tourism.
The ruling and opposition parties know that opening up the island to tourism, particularly tourists from the mainland, can create business opportunities. But the ruling party continues to play its deceitful games. On the one hand it promises the local tourism industry the sky. On the other hand it keeps raising the threshold for cross-strait consultations, providing itself with excuses to break off negotiations. It has exhausted the patience of the local tourism industry. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party trotted out its "Challenge 2008 National Development Plan" early in its administration. It was confident it would have a respectable political record by 2008. It is now 2008. How many commitments have been realized? The tourism industry in Kaohsiung and Keelung rolled out the red carpet for a mainland cruise ship carrying 600 guests. Even taxi drivers mobilized, working night shifts. Their desperate hope of economic opportunities makes one sad. Why was Chen Shui-bian's "special approval" limited to a single cruise ship? Why not extend this approval to permit earlier and broader cross-strait economic and trade policies?