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Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 12:26 UK

Direct China-Taiwan flights begin

Ground crew in Taipei bring in one of the planes arriving from China on 4 July 2008
Thirty-six planes will make the trip across the Taiwan Strait this weekend

The first regular, direct flight from mainland China to Taiwan for nearly 60 years has landed at Taipei's airport.

China's top official on Taiwan affairs said the flight was "a new start" in exchanges between Taipei and Beijing.

The two sides have been ruled by separate governments since 1949, forcing travellers to fly via a third destination.

But ties have improved significantly since Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou, took office in May.

Mr Ma advocates stronger economic ties with China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province and has threatened force if it moves towards formal independence.

The agreements on flights, signed last month, is seen as a big step towards improved cross-strait relations.

'One family'

The new flights, which will take place from Friday to Monday only, will connect five major cities in China with hubs in Taiwan.

Chinese tourists arrive in Taipei on 4 July 2008

The China Southern Airlines flight, from the southern city of Guangzhou, was the first of 36 cross-strait flights to be launched this weekend.

It carried about 250 passengers and was met with a water sprinkling ceremony.

Company chairman Liu Shaoyong flew on the inaugural flight.

"This is a sacred moment. The two sides of the strait are like members in one family," he told journalists in Taipei.

Other arriving passengers, many of whom are tourists, were greeted by lion dancers and aboriginal singers.

"It's so convenient to get here," Wang Qi, who arrived in Taipei from Xiamen, said.

"Since I was very young I always wanted to go to Alishan," she told Reuters news agency, referring to Taiwan's most famous mountain.

At the same time as the China Southern flight was travelling to Taipei, a Taiwan-based China Airlines flight with Taiwanese tourists was making its way to Shanghai.

Tourism boost

The new flight agreement is being seen as a high-profile endorsement for new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, and his Kuomintang (KMT) party, which has just taken power again after more than a decade in opposition.

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Departure and arrival footage of passengers

It strengthens the KMT's election stance that they are the party which can do business with the mainland.

TAIWAN-CHINA RELATIONS
Taiwan map
Until now, people had to fly via Hong Kong or Macau to get to Taiwan
China and Taiwan ruled by separate governments since end of Chinese civil war in 1949
China considers the island part of its territory
China has offered a "one country, two systems" solution, like Hong Kong
Most people in Taiwan support status quo

As well as the symbolism, there's a practical hope too that the increase in mainland tourists will boost Taiwan's flagging economy.

Local businesses are predicting the new arrivals will provide a much-needed cash boost.

Tourist numbers from the mainland are expected to rapidly increase because - alongside the deal on flights - the two sides have also agreed that the number of Chinese tourists allowed to visit Taiwan will rise to 3,000 per day from 18 July.

Many Taiwanese are excited by the expected influx of tourists, says the BBC's Caroline Gluck in Taipei.

But others are more wary - citing concerns about rude behaviour, cheap spending habits and the potential for political disputes, our correspondent says.

Long road ahead

There is still much that could be done to improve China-Taiwan relations.

Direct cargo flights - much more useful to Taiwanese businesses than tourist flights - are still being blocked by Beijing.

And there is no sign of progress on political issues which are key for Taiwan, including Taipei's demand for international recognition.

The new charter flights still take a circuitous route, through Hong Kong airspace, so that flying times are longer than need be.

This is because Taiwan's military is on constant alert for an air attack from the mainland, and analysts say it cannot afford to let civilian flights clutter cross-straits radars.


SEE ALSO
In pictures: China-Taiwan flights
04 Jul 08 |  In Pictures
Direct China-Taiwan travel agreed
13 Jun 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Media praise China-Taiwan talks
12 Jun 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Regional rivals reach across strait
29 May 08 |  Asia-Pacific
China and Taiwan to restart talks
29 May 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Press hails China-Taiwan talks
29 May 08 |  Asia-Pacific
China-Taiwan meeting bridges gulf
13 Apr 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Taiwan says China talks to resume
23 May 08 |  Asia-Pacific

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