The first non-stop flights from mainland China to Taiwan, since the two sides split in civil war, left for the island Friday.  The regular weekend flights could bring as many as 3,000 mainland tourists per day to Taiwan.  Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

The morning flights took off from several major Chinese cities for Taiwan.  China's official Xinhua news agency said 760 mainland tourists were on board and would stay in Taiwan for ten days of sight-seeing.

China's state television offered live coverage of some of the departures.

In Beijing, a ceremony was held at the airport marking the launch of the non-stop cross-Strait flights.  Several Chinese officials spoke at the ceremony and welcomed the improved transportation links.

Wang Yi is the director of China's Taiwan affairs office.  He said the flights were a new beginning in cross-Strait exchanges.

Wang says it does not matter how far apart they are, or how long they have been cut off. He says they are from the same descendants and they are all Chinese.  He says their relatives are from the same roots and their blood is thicker than water.

Taiwan split from China after the communists won the nation's civil war in 1949.  China has vowed to reunite the island with the mainland, by force if necessary.

But relations have warmed since the election of Taiwan's new President Ma Ying-jeou, who favors closer relations with Beijing.  Last month the political rivals signed an agreement for the direct charter flights.

Previous flights between mainland China and Taiwan had been limited to Chinese holidays and were forced to stopover in Hong Kong or Macau.

The charter planes will still have to fly over Hong Kong for security reasons, but the non-stop flights will save hours of flight time.

The 36 flights per weekend also include Taiwan carriers bringing tourists and businessmen to the mainland.  Despite the lack of direct flights, trade has flourished between the two sides. 

Some information for this report was provided by AP and AFP