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First direct flight fom China in 59 years lands in Taiwan

The first commercial flight to fly between mainland China and Taiwan since 1949 left Guangzhou for Taipei on Friday. The move is aimed at boosting tourism between China and the breakaway island of Taiwan after 59 years of tense relations.

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Mainland Chinese tourists flew out for Taiwan early Friday on the first regular direct service in decades, a milestone that is part of a dramatic recent thawing in ties between the long-time rivals.

The direct flights were a key component of a campaign promise made by new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to quickly improve relations with Beijing, which remain rocky since the two sides split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.

The first flight, operated by China Southern Airlines, left the southern city of Guangzhou at 6:31 am (2231 GMT), China's state Xinhua news agency reported.

More than 100 mainland tourists were aboard the Airbus A330 flight, which was carrying a total of 258 passengers and was due to arrive at Taoyuan international airport outside Taipei at 8:10 am, the report added.

"I have been expecting to visit Taiwan, the Treasure Island, and my dream will finally come true today," Chinese tourist Shi Anwei was quoted as saying.

"I was too excited to sleep last night."

Taiwanese authorities plan to roll out the red carpet for the mainland holidaymakers, with a traditional lion dance and a "water sprinkling ceremony" to greet the visitors, followed by a lavish gala banquet.

More than 700 Chinese nationals will travel on Friday to the self-ruled island from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and two other cities. Taiwanese travellers will also leave several airports for the mainland.

Taiwan banned direct trade and transport links following its split from the communist mainland, but Ma's election in March opened the door to warmer ties after a frosty period under his pro-independence predecessor Chen Shui-bian.

The two sides held their first direct talks in a decade last month, which led to the flights agreement, putting an end to the time-consuming stopovers travellers were forced to make for years in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

There will be a total of 36 round-trip flights across the Taiwan Strait weekly, operating from Friday to Monday.

The deal will increase the number of tourists making the trip from both sides to 3,000 -- which is expected to give a much-needed boost to Taiwan's sluggish economy.

China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification, but ties between Beijing and Taipei have improved markedly in recent months.

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.

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