Improving ties between Taiwan and China have led to an almost 70 percent rise in the number of mainland tourists visiting the island last year, officials said Tuesday.

Mainland tour groups accounted for 1.63 million visits in 2010, up 67.75 percent from the previous year, the largest share of last year's 5.56 million cross-border visits to the island, Taiwan's Tourism Bureau said.

For the first time the figures for mainland tourists overtook those for visitors from Japan, which for decades has been Taiwan's biggest source of tourists, with 1.08 million visits last year, the bureau said.

The growth in visits from the mainland was aided by the quasi-official tourism promotion bureau which Taipei opened in Beijing last year and the start of direct flights between Taipei and Shanghai, the bureau said.

Taiwan also increased the daily quota of Chinese visitors visiting as part of group tours, from 3,000 to 4,000 from the beginning of January, according to an agreement reached in Taipei in December.

Taiwan continues to ban visits by individual tourists from the mainland but, in yet another sign of the improving ties between the two sides, is expected to lift this restriction in coming months.

Mainland Chinese are allowed to travel to the island only in groups as Taiwan's authorities are concerned they might otherwise over-stay their visas and work illegally.

The bureau said it expected that Chinese tourists would continue to dominate its market, with a target of two million visits from the mainland this year.

"The target can be reached easily as long as some technical issues regarding the proposed increase of direct flights across the Taiwan Strait can be solved," Tsai Ming-ling, an official with the bureau, told AFP.

Beijing still considers Taiwan part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, even though the island has been self-governing since it was taken over by the Kuomintang at the end of China's civil war in 1949.

But the former bitter rivals have taken a series of measures to boost tourism since Taiwan's Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008.