Residential and commercial buildings dot the skyline in this elevated view of Taipei, Taiwan, on June 25, 2011. (Maurice Tsai/Bloomberg News)

The sign inside the mausoleum of Chiang Kai-Shek tells visitors to “please bow or show your respects” to the general who fought a bloody civil war against Mao Zedong and then fled China for Taiwan, where he spent years plotting to retake the mainland from its Communist rulers.

Now, busloads of Chinese tourists come every week to visit Chiang’s tomb, nestled between two red and blue Taiwanese flags in the small town of Daxi, an hour’s drive south of Taipei.

Just a few years ago, this wave of mainland tourists visiting Taiwan would have been impossible. China strictly limited its citizens’ visits to the nearby democracy, which Beijing considers a renegade province.

Chinese tourists trailing behind a baton-wielding guide through museums and luxury shopping outlets are a common sight in most of the developed world, but in Taiwan this is still very new. The influx of tourists from the mainland is having a real economic impact — and there is hope that it will begin to soften the relationship between the two historical antagonists.

“In the past, people in China took Taiwanese as radicals,” said one young tourist visiting from northern China, “but for the young generation, it’s different. We have various channels to get to know about Taiwan, like YouTube, movies and TV shows from Taiwan. We can watch them on the Internet.”

Taiwan is sometimes stereotyped on the mainland as chaotic, in part because of its hotly contested elections and occasional violent brawls on the floor of the legislature. Erika Guan, a Beijing native studying politics in Taipei, says the chance for tourists to see that Taiwanese society is “really harmonious” could change that view.

“I really want more mainland people to come and see Taiwan, and then they will understand . . . it’s not like what they see on the TV,” Guan said. “This impression will gradually let mainland people, especially my generation, think: ‘Oh, Taiwan is so good, why do we want to conquer them? It’s not necessary. We should learn from them, and it’s good to keep [the] status quo.’ ”

Since the 2008 election of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, who advocates closer ties with the mainland, China has begun granting permission for its citizens to travel to Taiwan. Most visit on short guided tours, but now residents of certain Chinese cities can obtain visas to travel independently.

Swiss bank UBS estimates that 2.3 million Chinese will visit Taiwan this year, up from just 300,000 in 2008. Those tourists are giving a much-needed boost to Taiwan’s economy, according to Waiho Leong, an economist with Barclays. Despite a 0.2 percent contraction in the economy during the last quarter because of falling exports, unemployment is near a four-year low. That job creation, he says, is largely because of growing demand for retail and travel-related services.

Nearly half the net 77,600 jobs created in the first half of the year were in hotels, restaurants and shops, while manufacturing lost 4,400 jobs, according to seasonally adjusted figures from UBS.

In the past two years, the W Hotel and Le Meridien opened their first locations in Taipei, and Taiwan’s tourism board says at least 40 more hotels are planned. In the Taipei 101 skyscraper, where tourists line up to visit the viewing deck, many luxury brands have opened stores, among them the British group Burberry. Its new store there is its largest in Asia.

Those luxury groups “see the opportunity of having business from mainland Chinese, because they will definitely visit Taipei 101”, said Joseph Lin, managing director of property consultant CBRE.

But not all the impressions are so positive, according to Chen Chi-Ping, a guide with a large local tour operator.

Many see Taipei, a city of 2.6 million people, with famous night bazaars but few skyscrapers, as just another second- or third-tier Chinese city — one that lacks the dramatic skylines that developed in Beijing and Shanghai after the mainland’s investment boom of the past few years.

Because of that, Chen said, “Chinese tourists disparage Taiwan.” And yet, nearly every tourist visits Taipei’s memorial to Chiang and poses for pictures on the concrete lot across the street from the office of Taiwan’s president, the only democratically elected one in the Chinese-speaking world.

And at the gift shop in Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, cuff links with the symbol of the Kuomingtang, the party of Chiang and Ma, are so popular that they recently sold out. Also popular are small versions of Taiwan’s flag, says the store’s clerk.

Tourists do, though, sometimes ask her whether the flag will get them in trouble with Chinese customs on the way home. They won’t, she says confidently.

— Financial Times

Jason Liu contributed to this report.