Beijing, China — China will turn contested islands in the South China Sea into pleasure-trip destinations for “patriotic” tourists, state-media said Friday, in a move likely to further stoke regional tensions.
China claims almost all of the strategically vital South China Sea despite rival claims from Southeast Asian neighbours and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
But the Asian giant hopes to turn the area around Woody Island in the contested Paracels chain into a “major tourist attraction comparable to the Maldives”, the state-run China Daily said.
Holidaymakers will be able to windsurf, fish, dive, take sea plane trips and attend island weddings “for romantics”, it explained, with no mention of rival claims to the island by Vietnam and Taiwan.
“It is not an easy trip, but many people with a patriotic spirit want to try it,” Xiao Jie, the mayor of Sansha city, on Woody Island, told the paper, adding that it was “like a blank canvas”.
Tourists have been allowed to travel to non-militarized areas of the South China Sea since 2013, it said, with Xiao estimating that 30,000 have already visited.
Cruise ships brought 16,000 tourists on six trips to the Paracel islands — known as Xisha in Chinese — last year, the paper added.
Beijing unilaterally awarded Sansha two million square kilometres of sea in 2012, declaring it to be China’s largest city.
It will use ships to remove rubbish as the number of visitors rises, the China Daily said.
Tourist ships depart from Sanya city in the southern province of Hainan, whose cruise terminal is undergoing a nearly $3 billion dollar renovation to become one of the busiest in Asia, the report said.
Cai Chaohui, vice-president of Sanya’s port affairs centre, told the paper: “I’m confident about the prospects… many tourists want to have a look at the mysterious islands”.