updated 3/16/2009 12:09:43 PM ET 2009-03-16T16:09:43

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.

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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 10,000 yuan ($1,460) at the store. But they walked quickly past glossy counters of designer clothes and bags, and settled instead on a few cheap toys and candies.

A few others emerged from the store empty-handed and posed for pictures.

"There's much to buy, but we don't have enough time to select the goods," one woman said.

Lee Chao-hsien, a store manager, declined to disclose the sales revenues generated by the visitors.

"We're not counting on the Chinese for everything but rather want to impress them with our good service," he said.

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 percent in the final quarter last year amid the global economic downturn.

But Chinese tourist arrivals have fallen far short of the 3,000 per day Taiwanese officials had expected, now averaging about 500 per day. Many Taiwanese have complained that Ma's China policy has failed to bring real economic benefits to the island.

During a trip to Taiwan last month, Chinese Tourism Administration director Shao Qiwei promised to promote tourism by allowing visitors to Taiwan to depart China from an expanded number of locations.

Several Chinese provinces, including Shandong and Guangdong, have also promised to organize similar large group tours to Taiwan.

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