China to crack down on illegal tourism in Paracel Islands
The authorities have pledged to crack down on "illegal tourist activity" after photographs were posted online of visitors fishing for endangered species off the Paracel Islands, a disputed area of the South China Sea.
The pictures show Chinese tourists posing with red coral, thresher sharks and other fish, the China News Service reported.
Feng Wenhai, the deputy mayor of Sansha , responded to the pictures by saying that a taskforce of police, national security agencies and the coastguard would target illegal tourism boats operating in the area.
Other officials and fishermen would also carry out patrols to search for such boats, Feng said.
A tour operator in Hainan province who arranges trips to the Paracel Islands told the South China Morning Post that tourists who wanted to go fishing often chartered illegal boats costing much more than authorised cruises.
"They need to find their own charter vessels and gather enough people as the cost is quite high, normally tens of thousands of yuan," he said.
The photos that surfaced online were widely condemned by internet users on the mainland, and raised concerns among conservationists.
"We should never develop tourism in the Paracel Islands," one Weibo user wrote. "These precious resources will one day be destroyed by these people."
"These poachers should face heavy punishment," another said. "It's a shame that we fail to protect our own valued assets."
In 2012 China established the city of Sansha to administer the Paracels - known as Xisha in Chinese - and the disputed Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank in the South China Sea, amid intensified territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over the sovereignty of the region.
That was two years after the Chinese authorities announced plans to develop the tourism industry in the Paracels.
The first tourism cruises, run by state-owned operators aboard the Coconut Princess, set sail from Sanya , a popular tourism destination in Hainan, in 2013. Only mainland tourists, aged 18 to 65 and with certificates of good health, can apply for the four-day, three-night cruises, which take in three islets and cost from 4,000 yuan (HK$5,000) to 10,000 yuan.
Foreigners, tourists from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan and those with criminal records are not allowed.