Written by Julie Yu-Wen Chen and Ying Lee.

In early December, DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-Wen made a campaign stop in Kinmen, an outlying island geographically close to China that is traditionally considered a difficult region to garner support for the DPP. During her visit, she reminded the electorate that the “Mini Three Links Policy” (signed in 2000 and implemented in 2001) was her contribution to cross-strait relations when she worked as chairwomen for the Mainland Affairs Council. This policy makes travel to PRC locations such as Xiamen and Quanzhou more convenient for Taiwan residents living in border areas such as Kinmen. This policy allowed travellers to take a boat to the mainland instead of flying to the island of Taiwan, where they would catch a plane to China. This policy saved the residents of Kinmen considerable travel time and money. When Ma Ying-Jeou became Taiwan’s president in 2008, he pushed for talks on greater liberalization of transportation.

In the past, many Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese passengers departed from or travelled through Taiwan before flying to Europe or the US. Those passengers are now attracted to the option of changing planes in China, because mainland Chinese airlines are offering cheaper tickets. Another possible incentive for Taiwanese passengers is the similarity of language and food services that are provided on PRC airlines. Although it may take extra time to transfer in China, more and more passengers are now choosing to take these flights from Mainland China to Europe or the U.S.

At present, there are no available statistics that indicate whether or not Kinmen’s residents have changed their travelling behavior since the Three Links Policy. Borrowing methods from the discipline of transportation studies, we conducted a stated preference survey to obtain information on Kinmen residents’ airport choice in 2013. Data collection took place at Kinmen Airport and Kinmen Harbor. 315 questionnaires were obtained. Respondents were asked to state their preference between two travel plans to Amsterdam on the basis of their attributes (i.e., airfare, cost of airport connection, flight frequency, ground transit time to airport, on-time ratio, and total travel time for flight, transit time, and the departure time of the flight). Amsterdam was chosen because, while there are short-haul destinations shared by both Taipei and Xiamen airports, such as Tokyo and Seoul, Amsterdam is the only international gateway and long-haul destination shared by the two.

Our analysis shows that Kinmen respondents were most likely to choose to transit from Xiamen airport to Amsterdam, than to transit from Taipei to Amsterdam. The coefficient for the airfare was negative, revealing that the respondents were less likely to choose options with higher airfare to travel abroad. Additionally, the coefficient of the cost of ground transit in the airport survey was negative and significant.

Furthermore, the coefficients of the flight frequency and transiting times were shown to be significant. For flight frequency, the coefficient was positive, which means if there were more flights in a week, a higher rate of respondent preference was indicated. Also, there was a high level of significance associated with transit times, where a negative result revealed that the respondents were less likely to choose an itinerary with more transit points.

The results are predictable and do not deviate from other international studies in airport choice. Kinmen residents do not differ, for example, from residents in the Greater London area in terms of rationally choosing nearby airports that would benefit them financially and logistically. One can regard the Three Links Policy as an instrument that is facilitating the expansion of Kinmen residents’ “life circles”, or spheres of life. However, compared with the Greater London area, Kinmen residents do not live in exactly the same circumstances as Xiamen residents. For example, they used to need an entry permit to go to the PRC. This was a passport-like document that carried their permits and served as proof of their identity. Since mid-2015, however, this requirement has been removed. The document has been replaced by a card, and Taiwan residents no longer need to get entry permit stamped when visiting the Chinese mainland, as they did previously.

In the past, if someone from Taiwan visited the Chinese mainland frequently, he or she would need to renew the document more often, because it would be full of stamps quickly. Applying for and renewing a new entry permit costs money. The actual cost depends on whether the individual wishes to apply on his own or asks a travel agency to help. The Three Links Policy, coupled with the entry-free policy, has certainly made flying out from Xiamen airport an attractive option. While it is true that other kinds of barriers still exist, such as differences in currency and cell phone systems between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, our study shows that Kinmen residents can bear such troubles. After all, once one lands in the harbor in Xiamen from Kinmen, it does not take very long to travel to Xiamen airport, and so the barriers can be handled without too much cost. The authors of this article have tried to travel the same routes it discusses and observe the behaviors of tourists on the way. It appears that travelers can adapt to different conditions from Kinmen to Xiamen without too many problems.

This behavioral preference and shift in Kinmen residents may have political and economic implications. Politically, it suggests that cross-strait integration can be deepened with the modification and liberalization of policies to facilitate flows of transportation, goods, and people. Human agents, given their rationality, would normally welcome and adapt to new conditions that make their life more convenient.  Economically, it is clear that current change is in favor of departing from the Xiamen airport. For the Taiwanese government and industries, the issue is no longer just a political one, but also one of how to retain their customers in light of heightened international aviation competition.

Although our study focuses solely on Kinmen, it has implications for people living on Matsu Island, another borderland area, as well. In Matsu’s case, residents also have the option of flying out of China’s Fuzhou Changle International Airport. Compared with Fuzhou airport, however, Xiamen airport still offers more flight options to international destinations. From June 2016 on, there will be 3 new weekly flights from Xiamen to Melbourne. From July 2016 on, there will be 4 new weekly flights from Xiamen to Vancouver and from January 2017 on there will be one daily fight from Fuzhou to New York. One has to wonder how Taiwan can still compete in the international aviation market in light of such developments.

Julie Yu-Wen Chen, Department of Asian Studies, Palacky University, Czech Republic. Ying Lee, Department of Geography, San Diego State University, USA