Months after the first Chinese tour ship sailed into the disputed Paracel Islands claimed by both China and Vietnam, the country’s online community has expressed fears that tourism could ruin the picturesque South China sea islands.
Concerns have been sparked after a controversial post in which a tourist uploaded photos of his recent trip to the previously unexplored Paracels - often advertised as ”China’s Maldives" - and boasted of hunting sea creatures on the islands.
Aside from the more common activities such as fishing, diving and sea-turtle watching, the post bragged about harvesting and feasting on endangered creatures such as giant clam - also known as Tridacna gigas - and nautilidae. Giant clam is protected by the the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
As of May, China along with 177 other countries signed up to the multilateral agreement that aims to protect 34,000 species of rare animals and plants, which was flouted by the Paracel visitors.
“Giant clams are best when served raw, they taste good with mustard and soy sauce,” the post said. “Most giant clams we picked weighed at least four kilograms.”
Other photos showed the group scooping up sea urchins and touching fishes during scuba diving. They ended up having sea urchin sashimi and steamed sea urchin for dinner one day when camping on an island, according to the post.
By the time another poster pleaded at the end of the post that visitors must not fish or hunt excessively when visiting the islands, the account had already enraged the nation's environmentally-conscious readers.
Criticism flooded in on China's social media on Friday, where the post was commented on and retweeted thousands of times.
“Don’t touch or damage any creatures living in their original environment - isn’t that the very basic?” wrote a Beijing microblogger surnamed Pan. “What will Xisha (the Paracel) look like in two years if this is allowed?”
“Stop the so-called 'tourism development' before the Paracel Islands are destroyed,” many others wrote.
Pan, who first spotted the post and protested on Weibo, said he was shocked at how guidelines to protect rare sea creatures were totally ignored by the group. “When I scuba dived in Sanya before, our coach would warn us not to disturb any sea creatures. How could they not know?” he said in disbelief.
Thousands of microbloggers spoke out too, criticising the tourists. Many said tourism was a bad idea for the Paracel Islands.
The contentious photos were first posted by the author “Shadowttt” on a seafish forum. He claimed that members from his group had each paid 8500 yuan (HK$10,743) to join a seven-day package tour to the Paracel Islands. The group had left from Haikou city and were scheduled to camp on the islands for five days.
On China’s largest e-commerce platform Taobao, tour packages that allow visitors to camp on the the Paracel Islands, advertised as “outdoor wildlife exploration trips,” are being sold at 8500 yuan. Cruise trips to the disputed islands cost around 5000 yuan on Taobao.
A spokesperson at Sansha municipal government, surnamed Guo, said the local government had prioritised environmental protection in all its policy makings and developments since day one. Sansha city, created in 2012, now administers several island groups in the South China Sea including the Paracel Islands.
Vietnam and China have a longstanding territorial row over the Paracel Islands. Plans to allow tourists to visit the islands have previously angered Vietnam and caused concern in Washington.