Direct flights between China and Taiwan begin

Posted in China | 15-Dec-08 | Author: Mark McDonald| Source: International Herald Tribune

The day's first direct flight from Shenzhen, China, arrives in Taipei on Monday, formally ending a nearly six-decade ban on such links between the two rivals.

HONG KONG: Shortly after dawn on Monday, with the weather cool and hazy, a passenger plane took off from Shenzhen, China, bound for the island of Taiwan. It was a simple flight, really --- just 80 minutes across the Taiwan Strait --- but it marked another dramatic step in the improvement of relations between the two countries.

The Shenzhen Airlines flight from China --- along with a later TransAsia Airways flight to Shanghai from the Taiwanese capital of Taipei --- inaugurated the beginning of regular and direct flights between the two rivals. Direct ship traffic and mail service also got under way Monday, state media reported.

There has been no such cross-strait traffic in nearly six decades --- since 1949 and the end of China's civil war.

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported that the flight from Shenzhen took off at 7:20 a.m. The TransAsia flight from Taipei left 46 minutes later. A total of 16 direct passenger flights were scheduled Monday.

When Ma Ying-jeou, the president of Taiwan, took office in May, he pledged to bolster relations with the mainland, especially in trade. Beijing has largely welcomed the changes, although China still claims sovereignty over Taiwan.

The countries signed agreements Nov. 4 to open up the direct links that began Monday, and the improved connections were expected to benefit both economies through increased tourism and faster delivery of mail, parcels and remittances. China is Taiwan's largest trading partner.

As many as 108 direct passenger charters are due to operate each week across the strait, state media reported Monday, as well as 60 direct cargo flights a month. The flights will come and go from 21 cities on the mainland and eight cities in Taiwan.

Twenty cargo ships from both countries were scheduled to set out across the strait on Monday. Sea voyages are now expected to take four days, according to the state-run newspaper China Daily, about half the time of previous indirect routes.

Passenger flights have been flying between China and Taiwan since July, but not daily and not regularly --- only tourist-group charters on weekends and holidays. Previously, nonstop flights have had to take roundabout routes via Hong Kong airspace. The direct flights cut flying time in half.

It was in July that everyday Chinese citizens were finally allowed to visit Taiwan as tourists. Before then, only Chinese citizens who were permanent residents of a foreign country, or those with special permission for business or cultural exchanges, could visit the island.

The president of China Airlines, Taiwan's largest carrier, was quoted by Bloomberg last month as saying the number of mainland travelers flying to the island could reach one million by 2010, up from about 300,000 last year.