China’s state-owned COSCO Shipping Corp plans to launch cruise services in the South China Sea in July, part of Beijing’s plans to transform several islands in the disputed waterway into tourist destinations to bolster its territorial claims.
The first route is expected to link Sanya in the southern Chinese province of Hainan with Yongle, part of the Xisha Islands, known internationally as Paracel Islands, China Daily reported on Tuesday (June 21).
"It is practical to stimulate the local economy through development of tourism, logistics and infrastructure facilities," Xu Lirong, chairman of COSCO Shipping, was quoted by the report as saying over the weekend at the Boao Forum for Entrepreneurs in Boao, Hainan.
China lays claim to some 90 per cent of the South China Sea while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have overlapping claims.
To enforce its claims, China has built artificial islands with military-grade airstrips on contested reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the southern half of the sea. It has also deployed missile batteries and warplanes in the Paracels, in the northern half of the waterway.
The Paracel and Spratlys archipelagos are also claimed by Vietnam, and Beijing-Hanoi relations have been complicated by the tussle. Separately, Manila has filed a case asking a United Nations tribunal to rule that China’s SCS claims are invalid. A ruling is expected within the coming weeks but China has said it won’t recognise the verdict.
Meanwhile Beijing has been engaged in further development of the disputed islands under its control. Senior Hainan official Xiao Jie reportedly said in May the local government wants to develop them into an attraction comparable to the Maldives.
Tourists would be able to go on sea plane trips, island weddings, and fishing and diving trips, he was quoted as saying.
COSCO, which owns the world's largest fleet of specialised carriers and multipurpose vessels, signed a contract with China National Travel Service (HK) Group Corp and China Communications Construction Co Ltd in late April to jointly establish a cruise company to offer tourism services in the South China Sea, China Daily said.
They will share resources and management expertise to provide cruise services to major islands of the Paracels, said the report. They will also work together in operating multimodal transportation, cruise ships, wharves and ports, storage and logistics.
COSCO is but the latest company to offer trips to the Paracels. Hainan Strait Shipping Co Ltd has been operating cruise services between Sanya and the Paracels for more than two years.