Taiwan and China agreed Friday (13th June 2008) to expand charter flights and tourism, a step toward ending a 59-year break in transport links and a likely harbinger of further progress in ties between the long-estranged rivals. The pact, signed in Beijing during their first formal talks since 1999, comes one day after Taiwan's representatives said they had reached a consensus with their Chinese counterparts on exchanging permanent representative offices. Such missions would mark a huge step forward in establishing contacts and mutual trust, although Taiwan's chief negotiator, Chiang Ping-kun, emphasized that officials in Taipei still needed to approve the measure.
"There is still a long way to go for normalization of cross-strait economic and trade exchange," Chiang told reporters following the signing of the transport and tourism pacts.
"There are still many issues to be discussed including expanding weekend charter flights into regular charter flights," Chiang said. Taiwan has banned direct scheduled flights ever since the sides split in 1949 amid civil war.
The expansion of charter flights was a key agenda item for the talks that began Thursday. Those flights are now limited to four annual Chinese holidays and are usually packed with Taiwanese residents on the mainland returning home to visit family.
Newly elected Taiwanese President wants to gradually expand the charter schedule and supplement it with regularly scheduled flights by the summer of 2009. His target is to have 1 million Chinese tourists go to Taiwan every year, well above the current level of 80,000. The agreement signed at a state guesthouse in western Beijing on Friday will allow for 36 charter flights to cross the 100-mile-wide (160-kilometer-wide) Taiwan Strait running from Friday to Monday beginning on July 4. Flights will be shared equally between Chinese and Taiwanese airlines, servicing routes between the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Nanjing and Taiwan's capital, Taipei, and seven other cities on the island.
Flights would be open to anyone carrying valid documents, a change from the past when they were limited to just Taiwanese and Chinese.
China has tightened visa procedures for foreigners from Taiwan. Until early 2000 foreign passport holders were able to apply for a China visa through Taiwan-based travel agencies, which sent the applicant's passport and visa documents to Hong Kong for processing. Once the visa was issued the traveler simply had to change flights in Hong Kong or Macao to travel to China. However, since April 17, foreigners living or traveling in Taiwan need to apply for their China visas in Hong Kong, forcing them to make a costly and often time-consuming stopover.
"Effective from April 17, 2000, visas will not be granted to an applicant currently not in Hong Kong SAR," says a notice issued by the consular department of the Hong Kong branch of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on April 13.