China opening up disputed islands to tourists

BEIJING (AP, REUTERS) - China says it is opening up a disputed island chain with just one hotel to tourism in another step in its battle to demonstrate that the potentially oil-rich territory is Chinese.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported Sunday that people will be allowed to go on cruise tours to the islands known as Xisha in China and Paracel elsewhere by next month.

China's move to allow tourists to visit the islands, lying southeast of China's Hainan Island could irk rival claimant Vietnam.

Hainan's executive vice governor Tan Li told a news conference Saturday that tourists will eat and sleep on cruise ships and land on the islands for sightseeing, according to Xinhua.

A Hainan provincial government official who gave only his surname, Zhong, confirmed Tan's remarks at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference and that local authorities plan to open the islands to tourists before the May Day holiday on May 1.

"Detailed information, such as the tourist capacity and travel itinerary, is still not available," Zhong said.

There is one hotel with 56 rooms on Xisha's largest island, Yongxing, which is 2.13 square kilometers and has no fresh water, said Xinhua.

It quoted ship owner Haihang Group Corp. Ltd. as saying a cruise ship that can accommodate 1,965 passengers is ready for sailing, while a second company is building another one.

"Prices will be relatively high due to the high costs of tourism infrastructure construction," Huang Huaru, general manager of a tourism agency in Hainan, told Xinhua.

Last year, China approved the formal establishment of a military garrison in Sansha city, which is located on Woody Island. The city administers the mostly uninhabited islands in the South China Sea which China claims.

China took full control of the Paracels - a cluster of close to 40 islets, outcrops and reefs - in 1974 after a naval showdown with the then South Vietnam, and there have been incidents ever since. Taiwan also claims the Paracels.

The islands are located amid some of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes and boast of rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas deposits.

Last year, China created a city administration on Yongxing to oversee hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of water where it wants to strengthen its control.

Vietnam said then that China's actions violated international law.

The Philippines, which disputes another island chain further south over which China's Sansha city also claims jurisdiction, doesn't recognise the city.