Taipei, Taiwan – Hundreds of Chinese tourists arrived in Taiwan on Monday on the first luxury cruise ship to sail directly to the island from China, boosting prospects for expanded economic and tourism ties between the rivals.

The Ocean Mystery arrived at Keelung port following a two-day cruise from Shanghai, with well-wishers setting off firecrackers and performing traditional dragon dances. The 1,600 passengers are the first of several large-scale tour groups Chinese officials have promised to send to Taiwan by ship or air.

After disembarking, many of the passengers were bused to an upscale shopping mall in nearby Taipei, where they inspected luxury goods at a local department store. Zhang Yonghong and Hsu Hongying, two female shoppers from Shandong province, told reporters they planned to spend up to USD 1,460 at the store.

Since taking office last year, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has eased long-strained relations with China by promoting closer economic ties. Last December, the two sides lifted a ban on direct transportation links imposed when they split amid civil war in 1949.

Taiwanese officials hope a significant increase in the number of Chinese tourists could help shore up the island’s economy. It contracted 8.36 per cent in the final quarter last year amid the global economic downturn.