China is to open disputed South China Sea islands up to tourism this month, state media reported on Sunday, a move likely to inflame a long-running territorial row with its neighbours.
The plans to allow tourists to visit the Paracel Islands before the May Day holiday is the latest stage in Beijing’s development of the territory, which has previously angered Vietnam and caused concern in Washington.
Vietnam and China have a long-standing 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.
The plan to allow cruise tours follows rapid development of infrastructure in a new city – Sansha – along with the establishment of an army garrison on one of the Paracels last year.
Tourists can only visit the islands on cruise ships as the hotels and other facilities are inadequate, news agency Xinhua said, citing Tan Li, executive vice governor of the southern province of Hainan.
Mr Tan was speaking on Saturday at the Boao Forum for Asia, which is being held in Hainan.
The report quoted shipbuilder Haihang Group Corp Ltd as saying its cruise ship was ready to take almost 2,000 passengers on a tour of the islands. A second cruise ship was being built by Hainan Harbor and Shipping Holdings Co, the report added.
“The tour prices will be relatively high due to the high costs of tourism infrastructure construction,” Hainan-based tour agency general manager Huang Huaru told Xinhua.
Mr Tan said local authorities would build more supply ships and ports, and beef up the infrastructure in Sansha.
The city was established last summer to administer more than 200 islets, sandbanks and reefs in the South China Sea, which also include the Spratly Islands and Macclesfield Bank.
All the territory within the 800,000 square miles of waters under Sansha’s “control” is disputed. The South China Sea is also home to vital shipping lanes and substantial proven and estimated oil and gas deposits.
Located on Yongxing Island, Sansha is home to about 1,000 people, mainly involved in the fishing industry.
Edited for Telegraph.co.uk by Barney Henderson