China opens first office in Taiwan

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The Independent Online

China Friday opened its first office in Taiwan, hoping to boost tourism and calling it a "milestone" signalling improved relations between the two former rivals.

China's quasi-official Cross-Strait Tourism Exchange Association formally launched its Taipei office - reportedly its largest outside the mainland - at a gala dinner at the capital's Grand Hotel.

"This is a key development and milestone in exchanges across the Taiwan Strait," Shao Qiwei, the head of the China National Tourism Administration, said at the opening ceremony.

Chinese from most of the mainland are allowed to travel to Taiwan, and Shao said Beijing would soon allow six more provinces to open up for visits to the island.

Friday's event came three days after Taipei unveiled a new office in Beijing in the first swap of semi-official representative offices since the two sides split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.

This could be a model for the future, according to Ma Xiaoguang, deputy head of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, a semi-official Chinese body in charge of Taiwan ties.

"I hope we can swap more offices to help promote the development of peace," Ma said at Friday's ceremony.

Fan Guishan, China's first tourism envoy to Taiwan, told Chinese media in Taipei this week that he was "proud and honoured" to be assigned to his new post.

"I had hoped to have the chance to visit Taiwan before but I never dreamt that I would become the first director of the (tourism) office," he was quoted by the state-controlled China News Service as saying.

"I am deeply moved and affected by Taiwanese people's warmth," he said.

Fan and two aides came to Taipei in September 2009 in preparation for the opening of the office, which is in a bustling business district, the report said.

Taiwanese authorities have said the island saw higher tourism growth than anywhere else in Asia last year thanks to mainland visitors.

More than one million Chinese tourists have visited Taiwan since 2008, when President Ma Ying-jeou came to power vowing to boost trade and tourism with China.

A key factor in boosting the numbers was a decision by the Ma administration in July 2008 to treble the average daily quota of Chinese tourists amid fast warming ties.

Beijing still considers self-ruled Taiwan part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

The move comes as Taiwan aims to sign a planned major trade pact with China in June, saying it will boost growth and employment.

But critics warn that the pact will make Taiwan even more dependent on the mainland and erode its de facto independence.

Observers say the swap of tourism offices will boost ties with Beijing but weary those favouring independence for the island.

"This is a positive development in cross-strait ties and a step in the right direction but political interference can happen at any time," said George Tsai, a political scientist at Tapiei's Chinese Culture University.

Ma's ruling Kuomintang faces stiff competition from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in key regional elections in November.