China is planning to transform several islands in the South China Sea into resorts and tourist destinations, in its latest move to bolster its presence in the disputed waters.
Senior Hainan official Xiao Jie said the local government wants to develop them into an attraction comparable to the Maldives, building in areas that do not need a military presence.
Tourists can participate in sea plane trips, island weddings, and fishing and diving trips, he was quoted as saying in a China Daily report yesterday.
"It will be an orderly and gradual procedure," said Mr Xiao, who is the mayor of Sansha city, adding that the islands will be a key post on China's Maritime Silk Road.
Sansha was controversially created by China in 2012, to "govern" the South China Sea islands and its surrounding waters, an area which covers some 2 million sq km.
Mr Xiao's comments come as the country plans a second, larger cruise ship to ferry tourists to the Paracels, which China occupies and controls. It has stationed People's Liberation Army troops there and, as military tension with the United States escalates, more advanced missiles, fighter jets and ships have been deployed.
Dream of the South China Sea is set to begin sailing in July, China Daily reported.
The new liner joins Star of Beibu Gulf, which has been plying a 13-hour journey weekly from the Hainan beach resort of Sanya to the islands.
More than 17,000 tourists have already taken the four-day cruises since the government began running them in 2013, as part of moves to increase civilian presence in the region and strengthen China's territorial claims.
It is not clear if foreigners will be allowed in the new resorts or to take the cruise ship. Tourist packages to the Paracels are now sold only to mainland Chinese, who also have to be screened by the authorities before being allowed on board.
The latest announcements are likely to stir up more discontent among other claimants to the energy-rich waters - Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Mr Xiao hopes that developing tourism would help boost the local economy on the islands. Woody Island, the largest in the Paracels, has more than 1,000 Chinese residents, many of them fishermen.
Flights are also being planned to the islands - Mr Xiao did not specify which - from Sanya and Hainan's capital city of Haikou. "It is our dream that one day we can fly to the capital from Sansha," said Mr Xiao. "That will definitely be fulfilled."