Mainland authorities said holidaymakers would be allowed to travel to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea by end of this year, in a plan that could add another irritant to Beijing's maritime tensions with Vietnam and other neighbours.
China News Service reported yesterday that island tourists would take the cruise ship Coconut Princess from Haikou or Sanya in Hainan , the southernmost island-province that is close to the disputed islands. It also reported that only Yongxing island - at two square kilometres, the largest among Paracel Islands' 22 islets - is scheduled to open for tourists within the year.
The Paracel Islands, a military zone, have been off-limits for decades, and they lack necessary tourism infrastructure.
The semi-official newswire also said Wang Zhifa , deputy director of the National Administration of Tourism, told the annual parliamentary sessions last month that the agency was working with Hainan authorities to expand tourist activities on the islands. The plan 'will help us to protect our frontiers and demonstrate the existence of our sovereignty', he said.
However, yesterday, a staff member with the tourism administration told People's Daily that the national travel authorities 'don't have the relevant information on this yet' and they're looking into the media reports.
Deng Xiaogang, a vice mayor of Haikou, said Hainan was working on a detailed plan to open up Paracel Islands to tourism, China National Radio reported on Wednesday. But the website of the People's Daily later cited Deng as saying he had never spoken to the media about this issue.
'[I] don't understand anything about tourism in the Paracels,' he told the People's Daily.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, when asked about the possibility of promoting tourism in the Paracels, repeated the government's view that the islands' sovereignty indisputably belonged to Beijing.
The Paracels - known as Hoang Sa Islands to Vietnam - have been controlled by Beijing since 1974. But they are also claimed by Vietnam, which has long asked Beijing to respect its sovereignty and end practices such as recent military drills and sailboat races that could threaten peace and stability in the South China Sea.
Last month, tensions rose after Beijing said it had detained 21 Vietnamese, accusing them of illegally fishing around the Paracel Islands. Hanoi countered that the fishermen had been detained in its waters and demanded their immediate release.
Professor Ni Lexiong, a military affairs expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said the tourism plan for the Paracel Islands could raise public awareness on the mainland of the islands' sovereignty.
'Surely there'll be mainland tourists going there as long as authorities open up the islands, despite the lack of necessary fresh water or tourism infrastructure such as hotels and restaurants. It can be a day trip or tourists can camp in tents.'
In fact, developing the Paracel Islands has been on Beijing's agenda as early as late 2009, in a blueprint to transform the resort province Hainan into an 'international tourism island' that has been endorsed by the State Council.
Although the Paracel Islands have been labelled by mainland media as the 'Chinese Maldives', very few holidaymakers have visited the islands. There is only one ship travelling between Hainan's Wenchang city and Yongxing island every 20 days, sending drinking water, vegetables and daily supplies. The remote islands did not have mobile phone or internet services until last year.