Taiwan has always feared a mainland invasion. But an incursion of a different kind into the island from next month is likely to be welcomed with open arms. Newly approved weekend cross-strait charter flights and visits by mainland tour groups could provide a much-needed boost to the Taiwan economy, which faces slowing growth amid the global downturn. The tourist industry is eyeing more than NT$60 billion in tourism earnings and 45,000 extra jobs that the new government of President Ma Ying-jeou has promised to create in the first year of the closer links policy. As Beijing still considers Taiwan a breakaway province, direct flights and tourism are banned. Flights between the two go through a third destination, usually Hong Kong. But while relations between Beijing and Taipei are the warmest in decades, questions are being asked about whether Taiwan or its infrastructure is ready for up to 1 million mainland tourists each year. The answer is yes and no. In the run-up to the March presidential election, mainland-friendly Mr Ma promised to launch direct weekend charter flights across the Taiwan Strait and open the island to 3,000 mainland visitors daily. He secured mainland support after landmark talks less than two weeks ago in Beijing. Under their agreement, from July 4 mainland and Taiwanese airlines will each operate 18 return flights from Friday to Monday with a further increase in flights depending on future demand. The flights must still fly over Hong Kong airspace, although the two sides are expected to discuss new direct routes soon. The mainland will open Beijing, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai and Xiamen to the flights and gradually add Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Guilin, Hangzhou and Shenzhen. Taiwan will open eight of its airports - Hualien, Kaohsiung, Kinmen, Penghu, Taichung, Taipei, Taitung and Taoyuan. While the first mainland tour group of 600 tourists will visit Taiwan on July 4, as many as 3,000 tourists will start arriving daily from July 18. Unlike foreign visitors allowed individual travel and a stay of up to three months, mainland tourists are restricted to travelling in groups of 10 to 14 for a maximum stay of 10 days. Under Mr Ma's plan, there would be daily charter flights by the end of the year and regular flights by June next year. The number of daily mainland tourists would also increase each year to 10,000 by 2012. Mainland tourists were previously banned from travelling to Taiwan directly because of security concerns stemming from hostilities following the 1949 civil war. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau estimates each mainland tourist spent an average of NT$8,700 (HK$2,236) per day - including meals, accommodation, transport and shopping - on the island last year. If 3,000 came each day for a seven-day visit and each spent an average of NT$60,900 during their entire trip, NT$66 billion would flow annually into the tourist industry. 'Imagine by 2010, if there are 10,000 tourists coming from the mainland each day and staying for seven days, there will be 70,000 tourists staying in Taiwan on the same day,' said an excited Cheng Ke-che, president of Kaohsiung City Tour Bus Association. 'How many tour buses would be needed to carry them? You can see how big the profit would be.' That rosy prospect is boosted by news that more than 13,000 tourists from Beijing, Guangdong, Shanghai and Wenzhou are fighting for the 600 seats for the first tour group coming directly to Taiwan. The potential of the new market has prompted travel agencies on both sides of the strait to intensify preparations. A 39-member delegation representing 33 mainland travel agencies arrived on June 16 for an 11-day visit to survey the Taiwan tourism market and design tour packages for mainland tourists. Straits Travel Agency, an affiliate of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, has prepared 20 thematic tour packages ranging from regular sightseeing to cultural and even wedding picture tours. 'Taiwan is known for its fabulous filming of deluxe wedding pictures for would-be couples,' Feng Zhouzhi, director of the agency, told Taiwan's cable news network TVBS. 'Some Taiwanese wedding boutique shops have opened branches [on the mainland] to offer a similar service that has attracted a number of Chinese people.' He said tour packages offered by his agency were educational, such as showing tourists how the Dutch invaded Taiwan centuries ago and taking the visitors to Anping Castle in Tainan county. 'Otherwise, if you just show them the buildings without a story, it would make their trips less interesting,' he said. Taiwanese travel agencies agreed. Even local governments, eager to increase tourism revenue, have arranged for the opening or remodelling of former residences and memorial buildings of historical figures. The Hsinchu county government has remodelled the old residence of former warlord Chang Hsueh-liang, who had been under house arrest in Hsinchu for 13 years. 'Many mainland tourists are interested in historical figures like Chang,' said county commissioner Cheng Yung-chin. Chang, considered a patriotic hero by Beijing, gained fame for kidnapping Kuomintang generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Xian in 1936 and holding him until he agreed to form a united front with the Chinese communists against the Japanese invasion. The Taipei city government is planning to open the former home of Chiang and his wife Soong May-ling in Shihlin, while Taoyuan county has reopened the mausoleums of the late Chiang and his son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, which were shut by the former pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party government in a bid to erase the Chiang legacy and the island's historic link with the mainland. But the army of expected tourists could also bring big challenges. Janice Lai She-chen, director-general of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, has warned local agencies against poor service quality. 'Authorities would step in to intervene if any travel agencies are found to be providing poor and unreasonable services,' she said, adding that in serious cases, negligent agents would be banned from serving mainland tourists. There are 163 agencies qualified to operate cross-strait tours. Her warning followed criticism that some Taiwanese travel agencies not only put tourists in low-class hotels, but also provide poor meals and force them to buy expensive merchandise, many of which are second-rate or even bogus. 'If we want to continue earning money from the mainland tourists, we must at least have a farsighted vision and prevent the business from being a one-time deal,' said KMT chairman Wu Poh-hsiung, whose historic meeting with mainland President Hu Jintao late last month set the stage for the weekend charter flights and cross-strait tourism. He said he had heard of complaints from mainland tourists that Taiwanese sold bogus tea to them on trips to Alishan, a must-visit mountain scenic spot. According to government statistics, there are 60 international-class hotels, 30 ordinary-class and 2,601 small hotels. By 2010, if the number of mainland tourists increases to 10,000 per day, there will not be enough rooms for them. Tourism officials said these offered opportunities for local investors. Billy Chang Kuo-cheng, director of the Civil Aeronautics Administration, said while there should be no problem Kaohsiung, Taichung, Taipei and Taoyuan airports to operate charter flights, facilities at the remaining designated airports needed to be improved or expanded. Hsiao Teng-ke, director of the Taipei airport, said the airport authorities have spent NT$20 million to increase its facilities with the renovation and expansion expected to be completed before July 4. The launch of the weekend charter flights is good news to Taiwanese airlines hurt by rising fuel costs and falling passenger numbers amid the global economic downturn. Six airlines, including China Airlines and Eva Air, are eager to operate the lucrative route which will generate NT$6.5 billion in profits if 1.09 million mainland tourists arrive each year.