China promoting Paracel Islands tourism

Source: NYT (5/28/16)
China Promoting Tourism for Disputed Paracel Islands
点击查看本文中文版 Read in Chinese


A view of the city of Sansha on Woody Island, part of the disputed Paracel chain of islands, where China is promoting tourism. Credit: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

BEIJING — Tropical islands in the South China Sea have become a major strategic headache between China and the United States. As tensions escalate over China’s construction of military installations on disputed islands, the United States Navy has sent extra warships to the waterway. A Chinese fighter jet recently flew so close to an American surveillance plane that there was nearly a collision.

Now, China appears to be taking a softer approach to its claims.

Want a wedding on a remote island? Come to the Paracels, says Xiao Jie, who administers that group of islands. If you crave diving and windsurfing, he adds, we have just the spot for you.

The Paracels, a cluster of islands on the western edge of the South China Sea where Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims, are perfect for tourism, water sports and romantic weddings, Mr. Xiao told China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper, in an article published Friday.

“We will develop some islands and reefs to accommodate a select number of tourists,” Mr. Xiao said.

As mayor of Sansha City on Woody Island, the biggest of the Paracels, Mr. Xiao oversees a community of 1,500 residents complete with a school, a police station and a court. But the mayor also has jurisdiction over other islands in the Paracel chain, as well as the Spratlys.

Some tourism has already started on three tiny islands in the Paracels, Mr. Xiao said.

A five-day cruise aboard a 10,000-ton boat that stops at those tiny flecks in the sea — Yinyu Island, Quanfu Island and Yagong Island — is now popular with couples who want tropical-themed wedding photographs but cannot afford Bali or Hawaii, said Liu Shibiao, an agent at Hainan Tourism International Travel Agency in Haikou, the capital of Hainan Province.

The three islands’ beaches are more pristine than the litter-strewn, overbuilt coastline of southern China, Mr. Liu said. “On the beaches, the seawater is much cleaner than in any other places in China, and they are very romantic,” he said. “It is cheaper than Hawaii and Bali.

“It also bears a special meaning to get married here in Xisha,” he continued, using the Chinese name for the Paracels. “These are our lands.”

Under President Xi Jinping, China has been challenging America’s post-World War II dominance in the Western Pacific by fortifying islands it claims in the South China Sea with weaponry, runways and deepwater berths. Artificial islands in the Spratly chain, created by dredging massive amounts of sand onto tiny rocks, now have Chinese soldiers and construction workers bustling about.

Surface-to-air missile batteries and powerful radar facilities have been installed on Woody Island, and tourism there is more limited. Tourists must fly in and fly out on the same day.

The cruises to the Paracels serve islands that do not have military installations, Mr. Xiao said. But there is a patriotic element to the tours, which are open only to Chinese passport holders.

An online advertisement by Mr. Liu’s agency for travel to the three islands says tourists will enjoy “patriotic events” including a “national flag raising ceremony.” Tourists are required to take an oath before the Chinese flag, the advertisement says.

The cruise ship, the Star of the Gulf of Tonkin, sails from Sanya, a port in Hainan, and then stops at Yinyu Island, Quanfu Island and Yagong Island over five days. Time spent on the islands is brief because there are no hotels or restaurants, but tourists are encouraged to socialize with local fishermen. The islands do not have the capacity to handle wedding ceremonies for now, Mr. Liu said.

Passengers sleep on the ship and spend much of their time drinking and watching movies, he said.

Are there plans for cruises to the new artificial islands in the Spratlys, near the Philippines, which now have military runways and deep ports?

“Sure, we want to organize trips there. Who doesn’t?” Mr. Liu said. “But it is not our call. We need approval from the government and, more so, the military.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *