Taiwan searches for 152 missing Vietnamese tourists

TAIPEI - A search is underway for 152 Vietnamese who arrived in Taiwan on tourist visas, the authorities said on Wednesday (Dec 26), as local media reported they may have come to the island to work illegally.

The tourists were issued visas under an initiative launched three years ago to attract more visitors to Taiwan from South and South-east Asia.

A total of 153 Vietnamese arrived in southern Kaohsiung city over the weekend - and only one has been tracked down, according to Taiwan's National Immigration Agency.

"The agency has set up a task force and worked with the police to investigate the tourists who are unaccounted for and the group behind them," it said in a statement, without elaborating.

Local media speculated that the Vietnamese may have come to Taiwan to work illegally.

They face deportation and a three- to five-year ban from the island, the immigration agency said.

About 150 tourists had previously gone missing under the programme, according to the Tourism Bureau, though it is not clear how many of them were found.

Meanwhile, Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told AFP it had asked Taiwanese authorities for clarification on the case and sought coordination so that tourism and exchange programmes for both sides would not be affected.

The visas of the missing Vietnamese have been revoked and Taiwan's representative office in Vietnam has suspended issuing tourist visas to another 182 Vietnamese whose applications were approved by the Tourism Bureau, Taiwan's Foreign Ministry said.

The tourism programme is part of Taiwan's "southbound policy", which targets 16 South and South-east Asian countries, as well as Australia and New Zealand, in a bid to boost tourism as arrivals from mainland China decline.

The number of tourists from the Chinese mainland has slid dramatically as cross-strait ties deteriorate, with speculation that the mainland authorities are turning off the taps to pressure the pro-independence government of President Tsai Ing-wen, who came to office in 2016. China views Taiwan as a renegade province.