In the wake of a typhoon that struck eastern Taiwan last week the nation has been transfixed by the fate of 21 tourists from mainland China who remain missing after their bus rolled off a narrow coastal road into the sea during the storm.
The incident comes at a time when the number Chinese visitors is exploding and some in the industry worry that any bad publicity could reduce the flow of mainlanders.
The accident is the most serious involving Chinese tourists in Taiwan since warming relations between the bitter enemies led to the lifting of tight restrictions on Chinese visitors to Taiwan two years ago and the resumption of direct flights across the 150km-wide Taiwan Straits.
The number of Chinese tourists to Taiwan has increased from just over 100,000 in 2008 to nearly a million in the first nine months of this year and China is almost certain to overtake Japan as the single biggest source of tourists to the island this year.
Taiwan’s tourism and airlines sectors have reaped benefits from the boom in cross-Strait tourism. Shares in China Airlines, Taiwan’s flag carrier, have risen 122 per cent this year, while hotels in leading tourism destinations are often fully booked. Chinese visitors, who include both tourists and business travellers, account for a quarter of all visitors to Taiwan.
Chinese tourists are not only surging into Taiwan but are the driving force behind “unprecedented” growth in intra-Asian tourism, according to research from HSBC.
Nearly 50m people left mainland China on trips abroad last year and at present growth rates that figure is expected to hit 130m by 2015, according to the report, with total annual spending by overseas Chinese travellers growing from last year’s $43bn to about $110bn.
Already, China has just surpassed France to become the fourth-largest international spender on travel, after Germany, the US and the UK. That growing market is leading to closer cross-Strait ties but also makes Taiwan more reliant economically on its much larger and sometimes belligerent neighbour.
China claims self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province and still reserves the right to go to war to bring about reunification unilaterally.
Taiwan maintains a daily quota on the overall number of Chinese visitors it allows to visit the island, but the government is keen to expand tourism links with its neighbour to show how its China-friendly policies are yielding economic fruits.
However, those such as Steven Pan, chairman of Formosa International Hotels, Taiwan’s biggest hotel company, have argued that the economic benefits of Chinese tourism will remain narrowly focused unless China allows individual travellers to go to Taiwan instead of forcing tourists into tightly-scheduled packaged tours.
不过，台湾最大酒店企业——晶华国际酒店集团(Formosa International Hotels)董事长潘思亮等一些人提出，除非中国大陆方面允许散客到台湾旅游观光，而非迫使他们参加日程紧凑的旅游团，否则大陆游客带来的受益面仍将过于狭窄。
In last week’s accident, the missing visitors, mostly from Southern China, were on the road when heavy rains caused rockslides and sections of the road collapsed.
Their fate remained unclear on Monday, as rescue helicopters and ships scoured the sea, although rescuers had found parts of some bodies.
Nineteen other Chinese tourists on the same road narrowly escaped death after a boulder crushed their bus, killing their Taiwanese driver and Chinese tour guide.
The incidents appear unlikely to derail the continued opening of Chinese tourism to the country.
In Taiwan, controversy continues over whether the local Taiwanese tourist agencies were to blame for taking the road, which was known to be vulnerable to landslides, or whether the government should have closed the route much sooner.