Anything but Leisurely: Analyzing the Dynamics of Cross-Strait Tourism

Taiwan-based academic Ian Rowen’s new book explores the complex nature of leisure travel between Taiwan and China that proliferated during the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou. It also provides insight into how this development has contributed to and shaped notions of Taiwan’s territorial status. 

For the first three years of my life in Taiwan, visiting most major tourist sites was a gamble. Places like the National Palace Museum or Sun Moon Lake would more than likely be completely inundated with group tours from China, even on weekdays. In fact, just the sight of dozens of charter buses at a given venue was enough to turn me away, knowing that the sites would probably be uncomfortably overcrowded. 

And just as quickly as these tourists showed up, they were gone. By late 2016, there was nary a Chinese group tour to be seen in any part of Taiwan. Later, even individual travel from China dried up. Beijing had moved to cut off outbound tourism to Taiwan as retaliation against the island’s then-recently elected Democratic Progressive Party-majority government, which has been more wary of China and its intentions. 

National Taiwan Normal University professor Ian Rowen’s new book One China, Many Taiwans: The Geopolitics of Cross-Strait Tourism explores this phenomenon in rich detail. The book is part ethnographic study and part academic monograph that contemplates the use of tourism to reinforce state power and territoriality and demonstrates how much more fraught and complex these concepts are in the case of China and Taiwan. 

This situation, Rowen argues, has given rise to multiple different perceptions of “Taiwan,” in which different categories of Chinese tourists, as well as local tour guides, business owners, and Taiwanese citizens, came away with varying ideas of Taiwan’s identity and geopolitical status relative to China. 

For example, the once-ubiquitous group tours were generally conducted on virtually closed-circuit loops, in which all businesses – including restaurants, hotels, and shopping stops – were owned and operated by people affiliated with the Kuomintang (KMT), the more China-friendly party then still in power, or by Chinese investors. Tour guides were also either in favor of closer relations with China or savvy enough to use language to support the idea that Taiwan and China are part of the same country. Most businesses accepted renminbi, China’s official currency, as payment. The tourists that joined these groups, therefore, continued to see Taiwan as just another Chinese destination – albeit a slightly more complicated one than they might be used to. 

One China, Many Taiwans:  
The Geopolitics of Cross-Strait Tourism  
By Ian Rowen 
Cornell University Press, 2023 
ISBN: 1501766953, 978-1501766954.  
200 pages.

As Rowen notes, Chinese tourism was heavily promoted by the 2008-2016 administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou, primarily as a way to boost Taiwan’s economy. Given the way that the tourism business was organized, however, many in Taiwan felt that the economic benefits were unevenly spread. Some argued that the costs of this arrangement – including objectionable behavior by some visitors and Taiwan’s best-known tourist sites being so packed that many locals started considering them off-limits – were greater than any gains to be derived. 

Seeing how this arrangement played out, many Taiwanese began to view Chinese tourism as another way of promoting China’s irredentist designs on Taiwan. Though not directly, tourism as an aspect of further economic integration with China was one of the concerns that led to the large student-led protests in 2014 that became known as the Sunflower Movement. 

Rowen’s understanding of this dynamic is deep. It’s informed not only by intense research and countless hours of interviews with tourists, guides, agents, drivers, and other economic actors in the cross-Strait travel ecosystem. A fluent Mandarin speaker, he also personally joined Chinese tour groups in Taiwan, boarding the plane in Shanghai and completing the itinerary with each group until the last stop. He finds that despite being bombarded during their trip with symbols of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s official name – most fellow tourists came away with a very narrow understanding of Taiwan. This perspective was more often than not far removed from what people on the ground experience every day. 

More illuminating, however, is the finding that even independent tourists from China – those who came individually rather than through a pre-arranged group package – held similar, if not slightly more informed, views about Taiwan’s geopolitical status. Despite visiting Taiwan for its relative calm and stability and acknowledging that it would be better for the island to remain de facto independent for the time being, many of these tourists still believed Taiwan would eventually have to be “unified” with the mainland. Some offered violent visions of how this might happen. 

The book is quick to recognize the uniqueness of cross-Strait tourism, setting the stage in the first chapter by establishing that Taiwan is an “exceptional territory” – one that is defined as much by what it is not than what it is. Taiwan is formally recognized by a diminishing handful of countries, many of them small islands in the Pacific. Therefore, international organizations like the United Nations don’t see Taiwan as its own functioning entity. Many countries with minimal ties to Taiwan often conflate Taiwanese people with citizens of the People’s Republic of China. 

Rowen chronicles this very nuanced set of circumstances in great detail and with the clarity of someone who has spent years considering the complexity of the subject matter. One China, Many Taiwans is thus an insightful read and a good source of information on a topic that has only been lightly covered elsewhere. 

If there are any issues to be had with the book, it’s that the language tends to become overly formal and dense – particularly in setting up the book’s theoretical framework. It makes sense – Rowen is an academic, and the book is published by a university press. But considering the importance of this topic and the fascinating descriptions of his time in the Chinese group tours, a shorter, more accessible article might help with reaching a broader audience. 

As enlightening as the book is, One China, Many Taiwans offers little vision for cross-Strait tourism’s future. This is likely because relations between the two sides have continued to deteriorate since 2016, with tensions now soaring. Rowen also notes that the advent of Covid-19, which originated in China, and the effects of the pandemic on international travel, have further diminished the prospects for restarting leisure tourism between China and Taiwan. Much may now rest on who is chosen to lead Taiwan next in the 2024 presidential election and whether they try to ease tensions with China through Ma Ying-jeou’s style of economic rapprochement or chart another path forward in the cross-Strait relationship.