China to allow individual travel to Taiwan

China will relax a decades-old ban on travel to Taiwan by individuals under a pilot scheme starting June 28, the government said Sunday, responding to growing demand amid a thaw between the two sides.

Initially, the programme will apply to residents of the Chinese capital Beijing, the eastern business hub Shanghai and the coastal city of Xiamen on the Taiwan Strait, said Wang Yi, director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office.

Mainland Chinese residents of the coastal province of Fujian, where Xiamen is located, also will be allowed to travel individually to the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen, Matsu and Penghu off the Fujian coast.

Travel between the two sides has boomed since Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008, pledging to boost trade links and tourism. A ban on mainland Chinese travelling to Taiwan was lifted by the two sides that year.

Last year, more than 1.63 million Chinese visited Taiwan - most of them on organised group tours - a rise of 67 percent from a year before, making China the biggest source of visitors to the island, according to Taiwan's government.

Wang's comments came in a speech at a cross-strait forum in Xiamen. The speech was posted on his office's website.

He said the two sides also agreed to increase the number of cross-strait passenger flights to 558 per week, from the current 370.

Direct air links between the island and Yancheng, Wenzhou and Huangshan in eastern China, and the northwestern city of Lanzhou would also be permitted, with Tainan in southern Taiwan also added to the list of authorised airports.

It was not clear from Wang's speech when the flight increase and new air links would go into effect.

Beijing still considers Taiwan a part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, even though the two sides have been governed separately since 1949 after a civil war.

Relations have improved dramatically since Ma came to power. Last year the two sides signed a sweeping accord aimed at normalising their trade and economic relations.

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