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China-Taiwan direct flights begin

Thursday, July 03, 2008

TAIPEI, Taiwan —  Hundreds of mainland Chinese tourists _ some in matching pink shirts _ arrived in Taiwan on Friday on the first regular commercial flights in nearly six decades, a historic move aimed at further easing tensions between the old foes.

A China Southern Airlines flight carrying 230 passengers touched down at Taoyuan International Airport in northern Taiwan, and fire trucks shot water at the first plane in a welcome gesture.

"From today onward, regular commercial flights will replace the rumbling warplanes over the skies of the Taiwan Strait, and relations between the two sides will become better and better," Chinese pilot Liu Shaoyun said after a 90-minute flight from Guangzhou in southern China.

The Chinese passengers walked through an arch made of colorful balloons amid traditional dragon dances and greetings from giddy Taiwanese officials.

Although Taiwan has allowed limited charter flights for holidays in recent years, the regular weekend service is a major step forward in normalizing travel between the rivals. Taiwan had barred direct travel to and from China for decades as a security measure, and most mainland tourists were also banned.

A Xiamen Airlines flight later touched down at Sungshan airport in downtown Taipei, which opened to international traffic for the first time in three decades. The 100 passengers wore matching pink shirts.

"We call Taiwan the beautiful island and I have high hopes of this trip," said Hung Nan, a 26-year-old cameraman traveling with the tourists.

Lin Jinxian, a 58-year-old engineer, said he hoped the regular flights could bring the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou closer to Taiwan and help "mutual economic developments."

Taiwan's China Airlines also flew more than 300 Taiwanese on a charter flight to Shanghai earlier in the day.

The historic step _ the result of diplomatic efforts by new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou _ is aimed at warming relations between the self-ruled island of 23 million people and its powerful neighbor, which claims Taiwan as its territory.

An initial 36 weekend flights will connect major cities on mainland China with Taiwan's airports, in the first direct service since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949. More than 600 Chinese traveler are due to arrive Friday on weeklong package tours.

While the Chinese tourism push to Taiwan is in its infancy, traffic in the other direction is well established, with about 4 million Taiwanese visiting the mainland annually.

Taiwan hopes the commercial service will be extended to weekdays in coming months, with an aim of attracting 1 million Chinese tourists a years, up from just 80,000 last year, officials say.

To avoid any embarrassing scenes, Taiwanese officials have vowed to prevent any confrontations between the visitors and any anti-communist activists. Followers of Falun Gong, a group strongly opposed to the Chinese government, have ignored requests by the Tainan municipal government in southern Taiwan to stay away from several popular tourist sites.

Falun Gong, a spiritual movement rooted in Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese beliefs, has been persecuted in China and Beijing banned it as an "evil cult" in 1999.

"If the mainlanders have any grievances or are involved in any disputes, we will have an emergency task force to deal with them," said Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin.

Despite its spectacular outdoors, Taiwan has never become a popular spot for foreign travelers because of decades of emphasis on industrial _ not tourism _ development. Now officials are counting on the mainlanders to help stimulate the sluggish economy.

To cash in on the expected tourism boom, local authorities spruced up sightseeing spots such as Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan and Mt. Ali in the south. Another likely draw will be an elaborate mausoleum in the memory of late Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek, located in the rugged mountains of northern Taiwan.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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