The move on Wednesday halts a programme that allowed Chinese citizens in 47 mainland cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen, to apply for permits to visit Taiwan on their own instead of group tours.
In a one-sentence notice, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism said such trips would be suspended from August 1 “due to current cross-strait relations”. It did not elaborate further.
Relations between Beijing and Taipei have plummeted since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in 2016 because her party refuses to recognise the idea that Taiwan is part of “one China”.
As a punishment, Beijing has cut official communications, ramped up military exercises, poached diplomatic allies and ratcheted up economic pressure on the island.
The latest move comes as Taiwan prepares to hold a presidential election in January, with Beijing-friendly candidate Han Kuo-yu of the opposition Kuomintang party hoping to defeat Tsai.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, the island’s top policy-making body on China, “sternly” condemned the move, saying it was done unilaterally.
“We are not delighted to see the normal tourism and exchange across the strait were disrupted by political factors,” it said.
Mainland travellers with permits issued before Thursday can follow the original itinerary, but after that date, tourists can only go in groups, said China International Travel Service, a major mainland tour operator.
J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, said Beijing was trying to increase pressure on Tsai.
“This likely constitutes [a] round of ‘weaponisation of tourism’ by Beijing to put pressure on the Tsai administration,” Cole told AFP news agency.
“It’s reasonable to conclude that this is meant to add to President Tsai’s challenges as she seeks re-election in January, facing off against [Han] who claims will seek better, closer relations with Beijing.”
Taiwan experienced a sharp drop in mainland tourists after Tsai took office.
Tourism operators attributed the decline to a more negative portrayal of Taiwan in Chinese media, along with the scaled-back promotion of tours by major Chinese travel agencies.
Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said that by blocking mainland tourists, “the Chinese Communists act like they are afraid that the Chinese people will experience the sweet fruits of freedom and democracy”.
It added: “Since 2016, China has kept using its tourists as a weapon to threaten the DPP … Taiwan will not bow to such political pressure and Taiwan will open its arms wider to embrace tourists from more countries.”
In Wenzhou, one of the affected Chinese cities, a female traveller surnamed Yang was annoyed over the ban, as her permit expires in August.
But she was not too concerned about cross-strait ties.
“I feel ties are not that tense,” the 25-year-old told Reuters. “I went to Taiwan last year, and everyone there was nice.”
Taiwan has been a de facto sovereign nation since the end of a civil war in 1949, but China still views the island as its territory and has vowed to seize it – by force if necessary.
In recent years, China has also stepped up military drills around Taiwan, including regularly flying what Beijing calls “island encirclement” exercises and sending warships into surrounding waters.
China’s military held exercises this week in waters near Taiwan, following a warning last week that it was ready for war if there was any move towards independence.