Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Taiwan Viewed From The Sea Tour: a teasing boat cruise for mainland Chinese tourists

My experiences of going on tours organised for mainland Chinese tourists has been pretty  consistent: infuriating, ridiculous and, with the benefit of some distance, highly amusing. When I learnt that there was a boat tour from Xiamen that sails rights up to to Taiwanese island of Kinmen but doesn't land on it because the trip is designed for mainland tourists lacking the necessary visa, I needed no further convincing. The tour began with ticketing confusion: the times were not those listed online and the ticket office had been relocated a kilometre down the quayside. Hawkers on the waterfront tried their best to sell us alternative tickets but finally, after a phone call, we located the ticket office and paid our 136 kuai each. We were then escorted back the way we'd come and onto the boat by a jolly man whose breath smelt of alcohol. It was, in fact, completely unclear whether this actually was the original boat we had been trying to take or whether a competitor had snapped us up somehow but it made little difference: we were getting a trip to Kinmen, the sun was shining and we were departing immediately. So far so good.

The boat consisted of a large and loveless cabin lined with narrowly packed rows of hard wooden seats facing a small, tacky stage either side of which an over-powered PA relayed the guide's commentary at an uncomfortably loud volume. We were then urged to go upstairs where, for just a little over 100 RMB each more we could have a small room to ourselves. We were escorted upstairs and when we seemed unconvinced they added we could instead have an outside table with tea for two for just 150 RMB. They were really doing their best to maximise the return on each passenger by squeezing extra money from us. Indeed, throughout the rest of the entire trip there was a sustained effort to make us part with as many RMB as possible. The staff seemed incredulous that me, a Westerner, could possibly choose to remain downstairs and kept on pestering me to change my mind but no, the cabin was where we could watch the guide tell her story and besides, the trip was already over-priced and I wasn't going to encourage them any further. 

I had discovered from the drunk man earlier that this tour had benefitted greatly from the cap on visitor numbers to the island of Gulangyu. Gulangyu is Xiamen's holiday mecca, a once beautiful cluster of colonial villas that has become a tourist trap. Visitor numbers are currently being kept down in an attempt to improve the island's environment and gain UNESCO world heritage status. As a result, a lot of visitors have to wait two or three days before they can make it onto Gulangyu and while waiting they sometimes choose to take this boat tour instead as an alternative. This trip, which used to also include a stop on Gulangyu but no longer does so, is something different. It is a tour that plays with the idea of international travel without ever actually leaving mainland China. It might well be the nearest that a good many of the tourists taking it ever get to going abroad. While looking out over the seaways and watching the constant flow of vessels (Xiamen is the world's 14th busiest port) the staff came back to try and get me upstairs again. Now there was a special offer: just 50 RMB each to go upstairs. I stayed put, I wanted to see if they would come lower still.

Our destination, the Taiwanese island of Kinmen came into view. When we were approaching it the guide said we had passed a line in the waters that marked the sea border. She then got us to check our phones and look for the Taiwanese network we were now attached to. This seemed to raise a lot more excitement than it should, seeing as our phones didn't actually work on these networks and there was no danger of us watching Youtube or connecting to Facebook, just some of the websites blocked in China, including this blog.

Next came the option of having your picture taken with Taiwan in the background. This was an offer too tempting to resist, particularly as the price was a modest 30 kuai. What's more, when we headed up and out to the bow of the boat for the photo, the staff said we could just stay above decks afterwards. So, finally we got up there for 15 each and were to receive a memento as well. Little victories are often the sweetest.

And here are the results. Three of the images are ready-made with the fourth stuck top left and the lot of them, then laminated. The meaning of the images is quite interesting. They frame the tourist excursion as a military manoeuvre. The title refers to this site as the frontline between Taiwan and Mainland China and the pictures are of army lookout posts, Taiwanese flags, a black plume of smoke, presumably the result of a Chinese bomb or missile, and a gun boat scrambled to repel the invaders. Since we were actually making a subtle incursion into Taiwanese waters and our guide repeated a number of times that we all wished to be reunited with our brothers and sisters across the water, I read this image as a way of banalising an ongoing conflict by reframing it as tourism but still maintaining the PRC's territorial claim to Taiwan, nonetheless. This was, quite probably, the most nationalistic tour I have ever taken but what was striking about it was that this was a very casual form of nationalism. There was nothing strident or hectoring about it, it was all delivered in a friendly matter of fact tone.

Photos done and dusted we could then sit outside and enjoy the fine weather. That's when the sales promotions started in earnest: cigarettes, pineapple cakes, knives made from cannon balls, an endless litany of products, all with a Taiwanese twist. We got stories about the products too, such as how President Xi had been given one of these famous knives by Taiwanese President Ma during their recent historic meeting. Unsurprisingly, the newly elected and less Beijing friendly President Tsai, was not mentioned.

We were finally lured below deck, once again, by the knife show. It featured a long-haired man who, it was claimed, was from a Taiwanese ethnic minority. He stood barefooted on top of two knives while the compere, a vulgar young lady in a short red dress, talking up the act into a microphone perpetually on the brink of howling feedback. He then proceeded to put another man on his back and bounce him up and down, all the while balancing on two thin metal blades. It would have been best if he'd have stuck to that but he got dragged into yet another sales promotion. He wanted to give us all 'presents' from Taiwan and the compere then added a price and asked him how much they would cost 'back home'. This prompted some very fake acting and, I was told, a rather dodgy accent too. In any case they managed to shift a few more trinkets on the back of this before we finally arrived back in Xiamen. 

The tour reminded me a little of a bus tour of The Great Wall I once took which also featured endless promotions, the only difference being that that time round we did finally get to see something impressive. This was like the Great Wall tour without the Great Wall. It was as if they had extracted everything of interest and were left with the residue: a floating sales promotion and nationalistic commentary. This trip to go and look at Taiwan and the Taiwanese is, I think it's fair to say, one that will appeal to an almost exclusively mainland clientele. It can be interesting for all of us, albeit for different reasons, to see how the other half lives.


  1. Innovative and extremly interesting as I am working in tourist sector and lam impressed. Thank you!

  2. Innovative and extremly interesting as I am working in tourist sector and lam impressed. Thank you!

  3. Innovative and extremly interesting as I am working in tourist sector and lam impressed. Thank you!