TAIPEI (Reuters) - The number of mainland Chinese tourists to neighboring Taiwan halved in the weeks before this weekend's elections, several Taipei-based travel agencies said, as Communist Party rulers in Beijing discouraged visits to China's diplomatic rival.
Taiwan elections are always sensitive in China, which regards the self-ruled island as a breakaway province, worried that the democratic free-for-all across the Taiwan Strait could cause people to wonder why their own government won't allow free polls.
Chinese tourists were put off visiting Taiwan because of the "highly politicized" atmosphere, a Beijing government spokesman said back in October, but would not say if Beijing was telling people not to go.
Those who did make it were curious to see democracy at work.
"I very much hope to see (the elections) because we still cannot see that on our side of the world," said a 30-year-old tourist from Beijing who gave his name as Max.
"It's a rare opportunity... I want to witness the civil rights that democracy brings to people," he said, looking forward to joining one of the traditionally boisterous election rallies the night before the polls.
Hundreds of residents of Hong Kong, the Chinese-ruled territory rocked by pro-democracy street protests in 2014, have also flown to Taiwan for the polls.
Taiwan votes in a new president and parliament on Saturday, when the China-friendly Nationalists are expected to be defeated by the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a party Beijing loathes.
The DPP's Tsai Ing-wen is likely to become the first woman president on the island - and in the Chinese-speaking world.
A Chinese Communist Party member who gave his name as Wong, on a eight-day tour to Taiwan, said he was impressed by the freedom of speech the island enjoys after seeing election flyers and campaign trucks on the streets.
"In China, democracy is just a word, but in Taiwan they put it into practice," he said. "I'm jealous."
At least 18 political parties and 530 candidates are registered to run for the island's 113-seat parliament, with election campaigns broadcast live by more than half a dozen news channels.
"It's so cool - seeing a female leader get elected," said a 21-year-old Chinese visitor surnamed Yang. "Her style seems very refreshing."
But some mainland visitors were not so impressed.
"Taiwan is part of China, so they should only support the Communist Party," said a middle-aged man from China's eastern province of Jiangsu who declined to be named.
"It's too extreme and it's a waste of money," he said, referring to election flyers and campaign motorcades.
China has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province since Chiang Kai-shek's defeated ruling Nationalists fled to the island after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists. It has never renounced the use of force to ensure eventual unification.
"China is too autocratic and Taiwan is too free-wheeling," said a mainland tourist who only gave her surname as Han, watching the change of guard in front of a giant statue of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China who is revered by both mainland China and many in Taiwan.
"How nice it would be if we could have a balance from both sides."
Additional reporting by Hong Kong newsroom; Editing by Nick Macfie