The first Chinese tour ship to visit disputed South China Sea islands set sail on Sunday, state media reported, a move likely to stoke a long-running territorial row between Beijing and its neighbours.
Plans to allow tourists to visit the Paracel Islands is the latest stage in China’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.
Up to 100 passengers paid a ticket price between 7,000 yuan (HK$8,800) and 9,000 yuan for the four-day voyage, which is set to become a monthly or twice monthly trip if the maiden trip proves successful, the Global Times said.
Only passengers in “good health, which includes having a normal weight” are permitted on the trip, the newspaper added, in a report which cites the Shanghai Morning Post.
The plan to allow cruise tours follows rapid development of infrastructure in a new city -- Sansha -- along with the establishment of an army garrison in the Paracels last year.
A named commentary in the Global Times defended the decision to allow tourists to visit the islands, which are known as Xisha in China.
“China’s Xisha tourism has nothing to do with its neighbouring countries,” said Ju Hailong, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Jinan University, in the southern city of Guangzhou.
“Those who want to manipulate China’s moves to make trouble are not admirers of international law and regional security.”
Officials earlier this month confirmed they would open up the Islands to tourism.
China has occupied the Paracels since a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974. It is a cluster of about 40 islets, sandbanks and reefs.
Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all have rival claims to parts of the South China Sea, while the United States is also watching Beijing’s increased assertiveness.
In his address opening China’s parliament last month, former Premier Wen Jiabao said Beijing should “develop the marine economy... and safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests”.