China stepped up pressure on Taiwan on Wednesday as it announced the suspension of individual travel permits to the self-ruled democratic island "due to current cross-strait relations".
Relations between Communist-ruled 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 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 (KMT) party hoping to defeat Tsai.
A programme had allowed Chinese citizens in 47 mainland cities to apply for permits to visit Taiwan on their own instead of visiting on group tours.
But the tourism ministry said in a brief statement that their issuance would be suspended from Thursday "due to current cross-strait relations" -- a move that could hurt the island's economy. The statement did not mention any restrictions on group tours.
Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, the island's top policy-making body on China, issued a statement to "sternly protest and condemn" the move, saying it was done unilaterally.
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."
For his part, Tsai's rival Han, who is mayor of Kaohsiung, urged China to "not equate" Taiwan's people with the DPP, his city government said in a statement.
'Weaponisation of tourism'
Taiwan experienced a sharp drop in mainland tourists after Tsai took office in 2016.
Tourism operators attributed the decline to a more negative portrayal of Taiwan in Chinese media, along with scaled-back promotion of tours by major Chinese travel agencies.
"Since 2016 China has kept using its tourists as a weapon to threaten the DPP," Tsai's party said in its statement.
"Taiwan will not bow to such political pressure and Taiwan will open its arms wider to embrace tourists from more countries," the DPP said.
Mainland arrivals rebounded by around 30 percent in the first half of this year after the KMT won local elections in 2018, according to the Taiwan Visitors Association.
J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, said Beijing had hoped that the drop in tourism in 2016 would lead to protests against Tsai, but it had not prevented individuals -- who tend to be wealthier -- from travelling.
"This likely constitutes another round of 'weaponisation of tourism' by Beijing to put pressure on the Tsai administration," Cole told AFP.
"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 an opponent from the KMT who claims he will seek better, closer relations with Beijing and thereby help improve the economy."
- Military warning -
Han is looking to unseat Tsai in a presidential election dominated by relations with China.
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.
Han, 62, said in a speech Sunday that the election would be a choice between "peace or crisis" with China.
Tsai, also 62, has described the election as a "fight for freedom and democracy", setting herself up as someone who can defend Taiwan from an increasingly assertive Beijing.
The Chinese defence ministry issued a white paper last week reiterating Beijing's willingness to use force to "resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China".
Beijing has also lashed out at Washington over its close ties with Taipei and its plans to sell more weapons to the island.
An American warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait last week. The Chinese military, meanwhile, is holding military exercises southwest and north of Taiwan this week.