China tourists noticeable by their absence in Taiwan as ties wilt

September 9, 2016 1:28 PM EDT

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By Faith Hung

TAIPEI (Reuters) - An hour after the shopping mall in the Taipei 101 tower opened its doors on Friday, fewer than 10 customers were wandering its marble floors which just a few months ago had been mobbed with Chinese tourists all day long.

The fall in Chinese tourists is being felt throughout self-ruled Taiwan, triggering a drop in business for hotels and travel agents and prompting the first major protest by the tourism sector at the deteriorating relations with Communist Party rulers in Beijing since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in May.

China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its rule.

Tsai has got off to a rocky start in maintaining stable relations with China, among Taiwan's two biggest export markets with the United States.

Organizers of the planned protest on Monday link the falling number of tourists to her refusal to recognize the "1992 consensus", which states that there is only "one China", with each side having its own interpretation of what that means.

"We don't want to get into the political issues, but we're suffering and we'll suffer even more in the next three to six months," said Ringo Lee, spokesman for the Travel Agent Association.

"The government has to help us through this tough time," said Lee, a co-organizer of the protest expected to draw as many as 15,000 people.

China is suspicious that Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party will push for independence for Taiwan, an idea that is anathema to Beijing.

"Taiwan and China have been on a cold war footing since May," said Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.

"There is no solution in sight... Neither side is willing to blink," said Yang of the Taipei-based think tank.

Government data showed tourist numbers from China fell 15 percent year on year in July and fell further in August. The sector was also hit by a bus crash in July which killed 26 Chinese tourists on the way to the airport.

The government on Thursday pledged T$30 billion ($960 million) in preferred loans to the tourism industry but that won't help end the political conflict.

"In our hearts, Taiwan will always be part of China," said a Chinese tourist surnamed Lin at the 101 tower, once the tallest building in the world.

"We like Taiwan. It is Formosa," she said, referring to the island's former name in Portuguese, which means "beautiful island".

(Editing by Nick Macfie)

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