TAOYUAN, Taiwan - Agence France-Presse
China and Taiwan launched regular direct flights Friday for the first time in nearly six decades, ushering in what Beijing called a "new start" in their tense and testy relations.
In the most visible sign yet of a new openness toward the mainland under new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the two sides, which split in 1949 after a civil war -- welcomed passenger flights directly from each other's territory.
"This is a sacred moment," said Liu Shaoyong, the chairman of China Southern Airlines, who piloted the first flight from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou to Taiwan himself.
"Flying over the strait to Taiwan is like coming home," he told a crowd of well-wishers at the airport welcoming ceremony. "It feels good."
The 100 Chinese tourists aboard got the red-carpet treatment on arrival, including jets of water shooting over the plane, to symbolize the cleaning of dusty travelers, as well as a traditional Chinese "lion dance".
"We were lucky to be on the plane," said Wang Yu, a businessman from Zhuhai in southern China. "Many people were fighting for seats on the inaugural flight."
Ties between Taiwan and China have always been better than the public hostility from the two sides has acknowledged, and trade between them last year was more than 100 billion US dollars.
But officially, China sees Taiwan as its territory waiting to be reclaimed by force if needed -- and the Strait, heavily armed on both sides, has long been one of the world's most dangerous potential military flashpoints.
Taiwan banned direct trade and transport links following its split from the communist mainland, but Ma's election opened the door to warmer ties after an especially frosty period under his pro-independence predecessor Chen Shui-bian.
The two sides held their first direct talks in a decade last month.
Those talks led to the flights agreement -- a deal that, for four days a week at least, will eliminate the time-consuming stopovers in Hong Kong or elsewhere that have been the bane of travelers between the two sides.
"Today is a new start in the history of exchanges between the two sides," Wang Yi, director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, said in Beijing.
"At present, cross-Strait relations are facing a rare opportunity for development," Wang said.
Changes have been rapid since Ma took office in May.
Taiwan banks can now exchange Chinese currency, limits on Taiwanese investment on the mainland have been eased, and some Chinese media outlets, which had been banned on the island, now have clearance to work.
There will be 36 round-trip flights across the Taiwan Strait weekly, operating from Friday to Monday between six Taiwanese airports and five on the mainland.
The service will meet growing demand after Taiwan allowed up to 3,000 visitors a day from China, a move expected to give a much-needed boost to the island's sluggish economy.
More than 700 Chinese nationals in 26 tour groups were to arrive Friday from Beijing, ********* Guangzhou and two other cities, with nine flights scheduled to fly from each side.
"I am thrilled to take the first mainland-bound flight in this new charter service," said Zhou Wan-rong, chairman of the student association of Chinghua University in Taiwan.Taiwanese members of the Falungong spiritual movement -- which is banned in China -- took the opportunity to condemn Beijing's crackdown on the group, protesting outside major attractions visited on Friday by mainland tourists.