BEIJING, June 12 (Reuters) - China said on Sunday it will begin allowing its citizens to visit Taiwan as individual tourists from late this month, relaxing rules that tether mainland tourists to tightly-run groups and giving a boost to the island's economy.
The trial start of the new rules was announced by Wang Yi, the director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of China's State Council, or cabinet, and the shift could boost the earnings of airlines, hotels and Taiwanese businesses hoping to attract more free-moving and free-spending Chinese tourists.
Wang told a meeting in Fujian, the mainland province facing Taiwan, that "the two sides of the (Taiwan) strait will formally launch the first trial batch of mainland residents visiting Taiwan as individual tourists from June 28," the China News Service reported.
Taiwan has been divided from the mainland since 1949, when fleeing Nationalist forces took over the island. Beijing claims sovereignty over self-ruled and democratic Taiwan, and has vowed to bring its under Chinese rule, by force if necessary.
But China has also sought to win over more Taiwanese to the idea of eventual reunification through economic incentives.
Chinese tourists have been officially allowed to travel to Taiwan since July 2008, but they have had to sign up to package tours that give them little scope for choosing destinations, hotels and restaurants for themselves.
The first Chinese tourists able to travel under the relaxed rules will come from the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen, the head of the Chinese tourist authority, Shao Qiwei, told the meeting in Fujian province.
In the first five months of this year, about 520,000 mainland residents joined tour groups to Taiwan, said the China News Service report.
In past weeks, tourism-based stocks on the Taipei stock exchange, including Regent Taipei and other hotel operators, have risen in anticipation of growing business from individual mainland tourists, many of them likely to be younger, middle-class visitors not afraid to spend.
The freeing up of mainland tourism could also benefit Taiwan's China Airlines and Eva Airways , as well as mainland services offering flights to Taiwan, including China Southern Airlines and Air China .
Policy towards the mainland will dominate Taiwan's next president election race in 2012.
The incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist, or Kuomintang (KMT), party will be defending his efforts to draw closer to the mainland against the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which is wary of Beijing and has favoured independence-leaning policies. (Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Alex Richardson)