(TAIPEI, Taiwan) — Taiwan's tourist attractions have a fresh coat of paint and restaurants are laying on special buffet lunches in anticipation of a surge in visitors from China when regular commercial flights between the old foes start Friday.
The historic step — the result of diplomatic efforts by new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou — is aimed at warming relations between the self-ruled island of 23 million people and its powerful neighbor, which claims the island as its territory.
An initial 36 weekend flights will connect major cities on mainland China with Taiwan's airports, in the first direct service since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949. More than 600 Chinese guests are due to arrive Friday in weeklong package tours.
"The mainlanders will be our guests," Taiwanese Premier Liu Chao-shiuan said Thursday. "I hope we can work together to impress them with the Taiwanese people's good-nature, politeness, passion and hospitality."
Taiwan had barred direct travel to and from China for decades as a security measure, but it has allowed limited charter flights in recent years, during Chinese holidays, that stopped over in Hong Kong or other transit points.
While the Chinese tourism push in Taiwan is in its infancy, traffic in the other direction is well established with about 4 million Taiwanese visiting the mainland annually.
Taiwan hopes the commercial service will be extended to weekdays in coming months, with the aim of attracting 1 million Chinese tourists annually, up from just 80,000 last year, officials say.
To cash in on the expected tourism boom, local authorities spruced up sightseeing spots such as Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan and Mt. Ali in the south. Another likely draw will be an elaborate mausoleum in the memory of late Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek, located in the rugged mountains of northern Taiwan.
To avoid any embarrassing scenes, Taiwanese officials have said they will intervene to stop anti-communist activists from targeting visitors with their protests.
"If the mainlanders have any grievances or are involved in any disputes, we will have an emergency task force to deal with them," said Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin.
Taiwan and China already share language and cuisine, but to satisfy visitors restaurants will offer a wide variety of Chinese specialties such as steamed buns, beef noodles and spicy dishes, said Yao Ta-kuang, chairman of the Taiwan Travel Agent Association.
In addition to mainland carriers, five Taiwanese carriers will fly tourists and business people to Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen and Guangzhou on the historic flights Friday.
Despite its spectacular outdoors, Taiwan has never become a popular spot for foreign travelers because of decades of emphasis on industrial — not tourism — help stimulate the sluggish economy.