First cruises, now flights … China plans to fly tourists to disputed South China Sea islands

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 11:31pm

The authorities in southern China want to launch tour flights to the Paracel Islands in a disputed area of the South China Sea.

If approved, the move is likely to further anger Vietnam, which also has territorial claims to the Paracels.

China claims almost 90 per cent of the South China Sea. Other reefs and islands in the waters that China considers its own include the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Malaysia.

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The air tour plans have been listed as a priority by the authorities on the southern Chinese island of Hainan this year and they are trying to gain approval from the relevant ministries and the military, according to a document released by the province’s delegates at the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing.

Chinese firms already operate cruise ships in disputed areas of the South China Sea, but these would be the first flights to the region.

Hainan is the centre of cruise ship operations to the South China Sea and the island is aiming to expand the scale of its tours to the Paracels.

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Two major cruise ships now operate in the Paracels, the Dream of the South China Sea and the Changle Princess.

The ships visit three islands in the Crescent group of the Paracels, which are known as the Xisha Islands in Chinese.

The city of Sansha administers the disputed islands in the South China Sea, including the Spratlys, the Paracels, and Scarborough Shoal. Its mayor, Xiao Jie, said on Tuesday during the NPC in Beijing that China would continue to strengthen its sovereignty claims in the area.

“One of our priorities is to strengthen our administrative authority starting from grassroots organisations,” he said.

Xiao said 10 “residential committees” has been set up in the Paracels, including Woody Island, where China has stationed military equipment and soldiers. Such government agencies were set up to “exhibit China’s administrative authority and sovereignty”, Xiao said.

He declined to comment on whether China would extend its presence to other disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The number of tourists to the Paracels surged 48.8 per cent last year to 12,038, the document said.

A South China Morning Post reporter joined one of the tour groups last year, comprised of only Chinese citizens, and found the trip mixed strong displays of patriotism with the usual sun and fun associated with a tropical sea tour.

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Construction is under way to expand the Sanya Phoenix Island International Cruise Terminal, which connects Hainan with the Paracels, the report said.

The Changle Princess began its maiden voyage last week from Sanya to the Paracels.

China began daily civilian charter flights between Hainan’s Haikou and Woody Island in the Paracels in December, but the routes mainly serve officials and stationed soldiers.