China will let tourists take cruises to disputed islands in the South China Sea, a move that threatens to antagonise nations with rival claims to the oil-rich waters.
Tours of the Paracels – known in China as the Xisha Islands – will begin in time for the May Day holiday at the start of next month, Tan Li, vice-governor of the southern province of Hainan, announced at the weekend.
The launch of tourism is the latest action by China to assert its sovereignty over the archipelago of nearly 40 islets, sandbanks and reefs that Vietnam also claims as its own.
China last year established a city and a military garrison on the biggest of the Paracel Islands and also printed a map showing its claim to a vast swath of the South China Sea in new passports.
Chinese vessels have had a series of clashes over the past two years with boats from Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea – parts of which are also claimed by Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. With large oil and gas deposits, the area is also one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
The mayor of Sansha City, the new Chinese city in the Paracel Islands, said the disputed waters would make for an ideal holiday destination.
“There are many beautiful islands and reefs. Tourists will be able to enjoy the sea views and the coral reefs,“ mayor Xiao Jie was quoted as saying by Xinhua, the official news agency.
Mr Xiao added that tourists would be able to visit ancient shipwrecks as well as historic relics that date back to the Tang and Song dynasties, which ruled China from the early seventh century to the late 13th century.
Tourism infrastructure will be minimal to start with. The only hotel in Sansha has 56 rooms. A cruise ship that can hold 1965 passengers is also ready to sail, and a second cruise boat for the area is under construction.
“It is very hard to build the infrastructure for tourists. The waters have to be explored and all building materials have to be transported. The costs are quite high, so the tour prices will also be quite high,“ Huang Hua, general manager of a tourism agency in Hainan, told Xinhua.
The Chinese officials made no mention of the naval spats in the waters. Last month Vietnam accused a Chinese vessel of firing a flare at a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands that set its cabin alight.
Surin Pitsuwan, the former secretary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, told the Financial Times last year that the South China Sea disputes risked becoming “Asia’s Palestine“, deteriorating into violent conflicts between nations that destabilise the whole region.
东南亚国家联盟(Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN)前秘书长素林•比素万(Surin Pitsuwan)去年对英国《金融时报》表示，南海争端可能使该地区成为“亚洲的巴勒斯坦“，局势逐渐恶化，演变为国与国之间的暴力冲突，破坏整个地区的稳定。（来源：FT）