TAIPEI, Taiwan—The first individual Chinese tourists arrived in Taiwan on Tuesday amid steadily warming ties between the two sides that split amid civil war more than six decades ago.
Previously, Chinese tourists could only travel to Taiwan in groups, reflecting fears that without supervision they would overstay their standard 15-days visas, primarily to take advantage of the self-ruled island’s relatively lucrative job market.
The first plane from China carrying individual tourists landed at Taipei’s Songshan Airport around 10 a.m. (0200 GMT) after a short hop from Shanghai. Earlier another group had flown into the central Taiwanese city of Taichung following a short plane ride from the offshore Taiwanese island of Qinmen. That group, numbering about a dozen, had traveled to Qinmen by boat from the southern Chinese city of Xiamen.
Tuesday’s individual tourist arrivals emphasize Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s continuing efforts to forge closer China relations. The two sides split amid civil war in 1949.
During his three years in office, Ma has lowered tensions across the 100-mile (160-kilometer)-wide Taiwan Strait to their lowest level in six decades, leveraging expanding trade relations and increasing face-to-face contacts to turn the corner on his predecessor’s pro-independence policies.
Despite the improving ties, Beijing continues to claim the island as part of its territory and remains committed to bringing about unification by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary.
Arriving at Songshan Airport on the flight from Qinmen, 43-year-old tour agency manager Ma Zhiqiang said he was looking forward to his visit as an individual, rather than in a group.
“When I came with a tour group before, we didn’t have enough time to explore Taiwan,” he said. “Now as an individual I’ll be able to see more aspects of the island and get greater enjoyment out of the food and shopping.”
Taiwanese officials say they hope increasing Chinese tourist arrivals will lead to a wider Chinese appreciation of Taiwan’s democratic society, which contrasts markedly with the one-party system on the mainland. To encourage the trend Taiwanese lawmakers have even opened the island’s legislature to Chinese visitors, though with better known attractions like Mount Ali and Sun Moon Lake vying for their time, it remains unclear how many will take them up on the offer.
Last year 1.6 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan, adding some 61 billion New Taiwan dollars ($2 billion) to the island’s coffers. Travel agencies say individual Chinese visitors will add another NT$5 billion ($172 million) during the remainder of 2011.