China to open disputed islands to tourism

HONG KONG (CNN) -- Sightseeing cruises to China's newest city, Sansha, located on a disputed island in the South China Sea, are set to commence this month, according to a Chinese official.

The move is certain to add to the dispute over sovereignty claims to the area.

Woody Island, known as Yongxing Island in Chinese, has a population of about a thousand, including military personnel. It's located 300 kilometers southeast of Hainan and was established as China's latest prefecture in June 2012.

The city of Sansha has the smallest land area, but the largest sea area in China.

Sansha's government has been set up to administer the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands), the Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha Islands) and the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands), which include Woody Island.

The islands are partly claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.

Shown in the map above are the islands. Closest to Sanya are the Paracel Islands. Further east is the Macclesfield Bank and south are the Spratlys.

Sightseeing only

The cruise tour statement is a sign that China is bolstering its claim to the territory.

Visitors won't be allowed to stay on the island. Instead, cruise-goers will eat and sleep onboard and only sightsee on the island, said Hainan deputy governor Tan Li at press conference at the annual Boao Forum for Asia over the weekend.

"We have started the planning and development of Sansha, including basic infrastructure, at full speed," Tan was quoted by state-run Xinhua News Agency (Chinese).

"Sansha's sightseeing routes, scenic spots and docking locations have been confirmed. We are hoping to begin [the cruise operation] before May 1."

Some 12 projects, including a berth for larger supply ship, freshwater supply, sewage and garbage treatment facilities are under development in Sansha.

The first phrase of Yongxing Pier has been completed and begun trial operation.

Sansha's first mayor, Xiao Jie, said last month the development and improvement of Sansha city will strengthen China's sovereignty of the islands.

Xiao said that the priority would be conservation of the natural habitat, according to the state's travel network, The Travel Channel.

 

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