This has been a record year for tourist arrivals in Taiwan, as the island received its 11.11 millionth visitor of 2019 this month. Many followers of the tourism industry feared a downturn in arrivals after restrictions by Beijing on individual leisure travel from China to Taiwan imposed this year. In 2018, China accounted for 44% of all tourist arrivals, and this year, Taipei calculated a loss of some 1 million expected tourist arrivals from the mainland.

For most of 2019, tourists from China still accounted for the largest proportion of arrivals (25.8%), while Japanese arrivals set a record with more than 2 million travelers. Japanese and South Koreans combined for 27.3%, Southeast Asians for 20.7%, and Hong Kong and Macau for 14.6%, according to Tourism Bureau data for the first 10 months of the year. Europe and the Americas accounted for 9.5% of the total.

The record number of tourist arrivals followed the announcement by President Tsai Ing-wen of her New Southbound Policy in May 2016, which allows visitors from six Southeast Asian countries visa-free entry to Taiwan if they held a resident card or visa for Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, any European Union or Schengen countries, the UK, or the US that had expired less than 10 years prior to their date of arrival. Taiwan received 10.7 million visitor arrivals in 2017 and 2016, and 10.4 million visitors in 2015.

To attract even more tourists, Tsai recently revealed a new program, the “Big Southern Project,” which promises to make Taiwan one of Asia’s top travel destinations. At the “Tourism 2030: National Tourism Policy Development Conference” on December 15, Tsai remarked, “We will continue to find new sources of international travelers and hope to elevate the nation’s travel quality and quantity by building on the current foundation.”

Heading into her bid for re-election on January 11, Tsai’s success in attracting a record number of tourists should help silence criticism by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) opposition that her strong stance toward the mainland caused a fall in Chinese arrivals and hurt the tourism industry. Under her “Big Southern Project,” she has also promised to spread tourism revenues to help underdeveloped regions of Taiwan, which could help generate some US$33 billion in output by 2030.

Beyond addressing economic development at home, Tsai’s push for more tourists is also boosting Taipei’s soft power, defined as “a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence.” Notably, her focus on increasing tourist arrivals from Muslim countries such as Indonesia has helped propel Taiwan to third place among non-Muslim countries as a Muslim-friendly destination, according to the latest Global Muslim Travel Index. She has also used social media to promote Taiwan as a travel destination, inviting several influential Internet celebrities to spend one night at the Presidential Office.

With the loss of seven of Taipei’s diplomatic allies since Tsai assumed office in 2016, Taiwan would do well to continue to attract more of the soft-power ambassadors that tourism creates. Each visa stamp in their passports is another affirmation of Taiwan’s sovereignty, and in their own small way, these millions of informal advocates may slowly help sway public opinion, and potentially their legislatures, toward greater support for Taiwan’s role as a legitimate state and “a beacon of democracy in Asia and the world.”