Ilan, Taiwan – Nearly 60 years after splitting from China, Taiwan is laying out the red carpet for tourists from the mainland.
Taiwanese President-elect Ma Ying-jeou, who will take office this month, wants Taiwan to host 1 million Chinese tourists annually, up from just 80,000 last year. He hopes Chinese tourism will provide an economic boost and also help lower tensions between Taiwan and China, which still claims the island as part of its territory.
To lure Chinese visitors, local authorities are unsealing a long secret tunnel built in the 1950s by then-leader Chiang Kai-shek, who thought renewal of war with China’s “communist bandits” was only a matter of time.
In Ilan, a 90-minute train ride from the capital city of Taipei, the National Center for Traditional Arts hopes to draw Chinese visitors to performances of folk acrobatics and colorful dramas that Taiwanese immigrants brought from southern China in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Artists demonstrate carving and other traditional arts in a line of brick houses with tilting eaves typical of southern Chinese architecture.
“The Chinese tourists will love our theme park because they cannot find these China links anywhere else in the world,” said Lee Kuang-kun, a park official.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, meeting with a Taiwan official April 12, approved a huge increase in mainland visitors. Now, the island’s leaders are counting on the Chinese to give the tourist industry the boost it needs to hit the big time.
Despite its spectacular mountain scenery, Taiwan has never been a hot tourist attraction for anyone except the Japanese, drawing only about 3 million overseas visitors a year.
Taiwan, an island 100 miles off China’s coast, lacks major historic sites such as China’s Great Wall and has not developed the beach resorts that have made Thailand and Indonesia international favorites.
To succeed, Taiwanese will have to put sensitive political subjects on the back-burner, particularly the Chinese claim that the island belongs to it.
Tourist guide Lin Teng-tsan said that members of his profession are being taught to steer clear of political subjects in their dealings with mainland visitors. “We will leave them to watch the nightly political talk shows in their hotels or read the newspapers,” he said, hinting that the island’s freewheeling democratic culture could reach Chinese visitors through less direct means.
Yao Ta-kuang, chairman of the Taiwan Travel Association, agreed with Lin, saying the expected mainland influx will give Taiwan a good opportunity to sell its democratic values to Chinese.
“The mainlanders will be impressed with the good manners and hospitality of Taiwanese, and particularly with our freedoms,” he said.
While the Chinese tourist push is still in its infancy, traffic in the other direction is already well established. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese visit the mainland annually, some to see the sights, and many more to do business.
Among the Taiwanese sites expected to attract mainland visitors are picturesque Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan and Mount Ali, where, according to a song as well known on the mainland as it is in Taiwan, “the maidens are as lovely as water, the lads as strong as mountains.”
Another likely attraction is an elaborate mausoleum to the memory of Chiang Kai-shek, located in the rugged mountain country of northern Taiwan.