Taiwan establishes first quasi-government presence in China with tourism office

BEIJING (AP) — Taiwan opened a tourism office Tuesday in Beijing that represents the island's first official presence in China's capital since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949.

China will open a counterpart office in Taipei later this week as part of reciprocal steps aimed at opening up tourism links between the two.

Since taking office in 2008, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has actively promoted ties with Beijing.

"The purpose is to introduce Taiwan's scenery and landscapes to mainland people, and promote mutual understanding and interaction between the sides through tourism. That's the most important goal," said Yang Ruizong, head of the Taiwan Strait Tourism Association office in Beijing.

Yang is the first senior Taiwanese official to be based in Beijing, a key milestone in bilateral ties after decades of hostility, while cross-strait relations are at their warmest in years under Ma's tenure. Despite the split 60 years ago, China continues to claim the self-ruled island of Taiwan as part of its territory.

Since Ma was elected, the sides have resumed high-level dialogues, set up regular direct transportation links and allowed a greater number of Chinese tourists to visit in the hope of boosting Taiwan's economy.

On Friday, China's Cross-Straits Tourism Exchange Association will open its offices in Taiwan.

In the absence of official ties, the two offices will also work informally to handle travel problems and disputes, along with other difficulties, for their tourists.

"We'll work to help travelers who come upon difficulties or need assistance," Yang said, though he added that the office does not issue visas.

Taiwanese officials are hopeful that tourism will help to promote better relations.

"This an important development in cross-strait relations," said Vice Mainland Affairs Council Chairman Chao Chien-min, speaking from Taiwan. "The opening of the semiofficial office shows that cross-strait exchanges are being gradually institutionalized and now the government can help Taiwanese travelers on the mainland to handle problems that come up during their trips."

However, some tensions still persist. China has continued to deploy an estimated 1,300 missiles aimed at Taiwanese targets, and has refused to consider renouncing the use of force in dealing with the island.

Last week, during an interview on CCN, Ma set off a firestorm of criticism when he stated that the island would never seek U.S. help to defend itself. Taiwan's Defense Ministry insisted Tuesday that its stance had not changed, saying it will maintain a robust defense to deal with a possible Chinese attack.

In Beijing Tuesday, the opening of the Taiwanese office was greeted with excitement and a flurry of interest from local Beijing media, as costumed dragon dancers posed and confetti was tossed galore.

Since July 2008, Taiwan began allowing mainland Chinese to visit as part of group tours, while Taiwanese have been coming to do business in China for years. Since 2008, Taiwan has received about 1 million Chinese visitors, while China records about 4 million Taiwanese annually.

Yang said he hopes to open additional tourism offices across China.


Associated Press Writer Debby Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.