The government announced yesterday that quasi-direct passenger boat services to China would be allowed later this year.
While this goes some way to liberalizing cross-strait transportation links, the scope of the move is still highly restricted. Prev-iously, passengers had to change boats in the third country. Now, they need only wait while new papers are collected, saving time and adding convenience.
Officials said yesterday that the liberalization was made initially to allow religious pilgrims from Taiwan to travel by ship indirectly to China -- by way of either Hong Kong or Japan -- to attend annual celebrations in Fujian province.
The government has allowed cargo to be shipped to China via a third port since March 1997. The arrangement is a way around Taiwan's 50-year-old ban on direct cross-strait transportation, according to which ships may sail from Taiwan to China without unloading their cargo as long as they enter a third-country port on the way.
Yesterday's announcement marks the first time that such an arrangement has been available for passenger traffic by ship.
"For the sake of economy and safety considerations, we have passed the idea to the Mainland Affairs Council," Lin Ching-fa (林清發), an official with the Ministry of Transportation and Communications' navigation department, said.
He said the vessels would be allowed to travel to Fujian province due to demand for religious exchanges. "The MAC has given the go-ahead providing that the service be opened to foreign vessels on a charter basis," he said.
Lin said such crossings would be allowed only on an ad hoc basis.
Officials said that around 100,000 pilgrims from Taiwan travel each year -- many of them illegally on fishing boats -- to Meizhou Island near Fuzhou, directly across the Strait, to attend celebrations in honor of Matsu, the Goddess of the Sea.
The sea passages, though much cheaper than flying, often are risky because the peak pilgrimage months coincide with the dangerous northeast monsoon season.
Because of Taipei's decades-old ban on sea links with China, the pilgrims have been sailing illegally on fishing boats to Fujian, or flying to Hong Kong and then Fujian.
Reports have said tourist business operators in central Taiwan have planned to rent ships to ply the route for the peak season on Matsu's birthday on April 27.
Lin did not go into details, but reports yesterday said that after the March election, the government would allow ships flying foreign flags to shuttle between Taichung and Meizhou via a third place such as Hong Kong or Ishigaki Island in southern Japan.
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