Paracel Islands

Woody Island cruises to start in Hainan this month amid sea disputes

Hainan opens islet in disputed Paracel chain to tourists, but they must sleep and eat aboard ship; workers rush to complete facilities onshore

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 April, 2013, 5:56pm

The Hainan provincial government will begin sightseeing cruises to China's newest city, Sansha on tiny Woody Island, this month, a deputy governor of the province said yesterday.

But cruise-goers would have to eat and sleep on board the ship rather than stay overnight on the island - which has a permanent population of roughly 1,000, including military personnel - Tan Li said.

Authorities had already chosen scenic spots and routes for the vessels, Tan said.

A single cruise ship would serve the route to Woody Island, which lies about 300 kilometres southeast of Hainan, he added. But he did not say how often it would visit the island, which China calls Yongxing Island and which is part of the disputed Paracels chain.

Tan was speaking at a Hainan government news conference in Boao on the sidelines of the annual Boao Forum for Asia, which opened yesterday.

Woody Island has a small airstrip and port, and a weather station. The first phase of a new wharf on the island had begun trial operations, Tan said, and workers were rushing to complete 12 other projects including a supply ship berth, water supply system and sewage treatment plant.

Tourism, as well as oil and gas exploration, have been slated as major industries for Sansha.

In addition to being China's newest prefecture, Sansha has the smallest population and land area, but the largest area overall.

The city, which is part of Hainan province, was established last summer as the administrative hub for two million square kilometres of the South China Sea.

Included in that area are the disputed Paracel and Spratly island chains and the undersea atoll Macclesfield Bank, known to China as, respectively, the Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha islands. They are claimed in part by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

In the past eight months, China had "intensified protection of its maritime rights" in the South China Sea, Tan said. Fisheries administration and maritime surveillance vessels had conducted more than 50 patrols in the region, covering a total of 7,000 nautical miles.

"[They] punished seven domestic trawlers for illegal fishing and drove away nearly 20 foreign fishing vessels," he said.

Meanwhile, a village committee had been established on Mischief Reef (known to China as Meiji Reef) in the Spratly Islands, marking the inception of the first grass-roots regime on the island.

Office buildings and living quarters for village committees were planned for Woody Island as well as the Qilian group, also in the Paracels.

According to Tan, the Sansha government had fewer staff than normal prefecture-level governments, and "super departments" had been established to save manpower. "Staff rotate to work on Yongxing," he said.