High-end China tourists charm Taiwan on first weekend


TAIPEI – A historic first wave of 762 select tourists from China charmed Taiwan over the weekend by spending money and behaving well, easing fears stoked by decades of animosity, officials said on Monday.

But the numbers fell well short of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s goal of 3,000 China tourists per day, a figure that would boost the island’s moribund service sector.

The Taiwan stock exchange’s tourism index dropped steadily over the past two sessions, losing 5.1 percent despite the launch of direct weekend charter flights on July 4.

The index became overvalued at the start of the year on hopes for a big local tourism boost, analysts said, but it gave back ground as it became clear gains would come more slowly.

“These were key groups of tourists, and they were specially screened,” said Deputy National Immigration Agency Director Steve Wu. “It’s a good sign, a good start from political, economic and cultural standpoints.”

Taiwan officials expect larger groups of tourists to begin arriving from July 18 as China travel agents clear paperwork. Most passengers on the 36 trips this past weekend were Taiwanese.

“It’s more important in a symbolic way in the short term,” said Ellen Chang, a Formosa Regent Hotel publicist. The five-star Taipei hotel expects its average occupancy to grow 10 percent starting in October, from 75 to 80 percent today.

Direct China-Taiwan flights scheduled every week, Friday through Monday, are almost all booked until August, according to travel agents.

“Our flights are very full, some overbooked,” said China Airlines spokesman Bruce Chen, reporting an average of 90 percent of seats filled on China-Taiwan flights. “We hope these flights are something we can increase.”

China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949 and vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary. But to improve relations, the two sides agreed last month to launch the weekend flights after a six-decade freeze, save for occasional holidays.

Tourists stayed in high-end Taiwan hotels, went mall shopping as instructed and smiled for the media instead of spitting, yelling or stirring political disputes as some on the island had feared, hospitality officials said.