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The inaugural flight of the first regular direct service between mainland China and Taiwan in almost six decades landed here yesterday, underscoring a dramatic recent thawing of ties.

A group of 100 Chinese tourists were among 258 passengers, piloted by company chairman Liu Shaoyong, on the China Southern Airlines flight, which touched down at 8:05 am (0005 GMT) from Guangzhou.

The charter service, a key component of a campaign promise made by new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to quickly improve relations with Beijing, is the first since the two sides split in 1949 at the end of a civil war.

"This is a sacred moment. The two sides of the strait are like members in one family. Flying over the strait to Taiwan is like coming home. It feels good," Liu told reporters after landing.

Taiwanese authorities rolled out the red carpet for the mainland tour group, who were accompanied on the flight by Chinese and Taiwanese business people, students and other travellers.

A traditional lion dance and a "water sprinkling ceremony," where fire trucks hosed the plane in a traditional greeting, will be followed by a lavish gala banquet.

"I have been expecting to visit Taiwan, the Treasure Island, and my dream will finally come true today," tourist Shi Anwei told China's official Xinhua news agency.

"I was too excited to sleep last night."

More than 700 Chinese nationals will travel on Friday to the self-ruled island from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and two other cities.

Meanwhile, a Taiwan-based China Airlines jet carrying 297 Taiwanese tourists left Taoyuan airport for Shanghai at 7:30 am. Eight other flights from various airports in Taiwan will fly to Beijing, Guanzhou and Xiamen Friday.

"I am thrilled to take the first mainland-bound flight in this new charter service," said Zhou Wan-rong, chairman of Chinghua University's student association.

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 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. They will fly between six Taiwanese airports and five mainland ones.

On Friday alone, there will be 18 round trips.

The move will increase the number of tourists arriving from China to 3,000 a day, giving a much-needed boost to Taiwan's sluggish economy.

China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. 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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