BOAO, April 7 – China is to open disputed South China Sea islands up to tourism this month, state media reported today, a move likely to inflame a long-running territorial row with its neighbours.
The plans to allow tourists to visit the Paracel Islands before the May Day holiday is the latest stage in Beijing’s development of the territory, which has previously angered Vietnam and caused concern in Washington.
Vietnam and China have a longstanding territorial row over the Paracel Islands. Hanoi last month accused a Chinese vessel of firing on one of its fishing boats which had sailed in disputed waters in the area.
The plan to allow cruise tours follows rapid development of infrastructure in a new city – Sansha – along with the establishment of an army garrison on one of the Paracels last year.
Tourists can only visit the islands on cruise ships as the hotels are inadequate, news agency Xinhua said, citing Tan Li, executive vice governor of the southern province of Hainan.
Tan was speaking yesterday at the Boao Forum for Asia, which is being held in Hainan.
The report quoted a tourist company as saying its cruise ship was ready to take almost 2,000 passengers on a tour of the islands.
“The tour prices will be relatively high due to the high costs of tourism infrastructure construction,” said Huang Huaru, general manager of the Hainan-based agency.
Officials said last month they were exploring tourist possibilities for Sansha, according to Xinhua, but no time frame was set.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, which is home to vital shipping lanes and substantial proven and estimated oil and gas deposits.
It has occupied the Paracels, known as Xisha in Chinese, since a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974.
Taiwan and ASEAN members the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all have rival claims to parts of the sea, while the United States is also watching China’s increased assertiveness closely. – AFP/Relaxnews