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TAIPEI (Reuters) - The number of tourists from China to self-ruled Taiwan fell 36.2 percent in the seven months since Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen took power in May, the government said on Thursday, amid rising tension between Beijing and an island it considers its own.
The fall compares to the year-earlier period and was steeper than the 18.5 percent decline measured for most of 2016, the island's Mainland Affairs Council, which formulates policy towards China, said.
Data on mainland tourists to Taiwan has been closely watched since Tsai formally took office on May 20 because the new government says China has slowed down the flow of tourists to Taiwan to pressure Tsai to concede to Beijing's "one China" principle that Taiwan is a part of China.
China deems Taiwan a breakaway province to be taken back by force if necessary, particularly if it makes moves toward independence, and in June stopped official communication channels with Taipei.
Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which traditionally advocates independence for Taiwan, have said they want to maintain peace with China but have never conceded to Beijing's "one China" principle.
"Taiwan will maintain its policy of welcoming mainland Chinese tourists," said Chiu Chui-cheng, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, at a regular news briefing.
"But due to political factors that impact mainland tourists coming to Taiwan, our government will plan for the worst and prepare for the best."
Citing immigration figures from May 20 through December 27, the number of mainland Chinese tourists arriving on a group tour, as a category, dropped 51.2 percent from the same period a year earlier, a greater drop than the total number of tourists for the same period.
Group tours from China can be limited by state-run Chinese travel agencies as they process entry permits into Taiwan, analysts have said.
For the full year through Tuesday, the number of mainland Chinese tourists arriving on group tours fell 29.9 percent.
The number of mainland Chinese arriving as individual tourists, which are not as easy to control, fell at a slower pace, but still reflected double-digit drop during Tsai's rule, the data showed.
The fall in tourists from mainland China has been keenly felt by the island's tourism industry which staged a large protest earlier this year and prompted the government to issue preferential loans to help struggling businesses dependent on tourism.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communist forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island.
Reporting by J.R. Wu; Editing by Nick Macfie