THITU ISLAND, SOUTH CHINA SEA (AFP) - The Philippines plans to turn some disputed South China Sea islands into tourist sites to promote peace as China builds suspected military facilities on nearby reclaimed reefs, Filipino officials said Monday.
Military chief of staff General Gregorio Catapang announced the plan as he flew to Thitu, the largest of nine outcrops garrisoned by Filipino forces in the Spratly archipelago, and overflew the eight others.
He said the military would help local officials put in place next year a ferry service.
It would take tourists from Palawan island in the Philippines, the nearest large land mass, to those islands and reefs in the Spratly islands which are held by Manila.
"What we want to happen is, from Palawan we can pass by Patag island, Lawak, Likas and then Pagasa. We can go back via Panata, Kota island and then Ayungin Shoal and back," Catapang said, using the Filipino name for some of the Filipino-held islands.
"It can be a good tourism effort," the general told reporters.
Catapang said the project could help improve the port and runway facilities of Thitu, known in the Philippines as Pagasa, amid what the Philippines has described as massive reclamation and construction activity which began last year on nearby Subi Reef and other Chinese-held features.
The Philippine military has said these structures could be turned into large naval and air bases that would allow China, which claims most of the South China Sea, to deploy forces to bolster its claim.
Eugenio Bito-onon, the mayor of the municipality of Kalayaan on Palawan which includes Thitu, said the tourism project would be launched next year after the town council buys a 25-metre, 10-million-peso (S$298,781) steel-hulled boat.
The municipality also plans to build lodging houses for up to 30 tourists at a time and offer them souvenir merchandise, he added.
As of now the island, about 450 kilometres or a 26-hour boat ride from Palawan, is home to 356 civilians and a small military detachment. But there are no tourist facilities apart from its airstrip.
"This would promote Kalayaan for tourism and draw adventure and technological expeditions here," Bito-onon added.
"For the past 20 years, a lot of people have been dying to come here but cannot because of the inadequate (infrastructure). There is no regular transportation," he added.
Asked if the Philippine government would be able to protect the tourists, Catapang said: "Yes, of course. We will assure them that they will be protected." He declined to discuss details.
"Our message to our Filipino brothers and sisters is to help Mayor Bito-onon to jumpstart his tourism for peace because... if there will be tourism, you will help the economy here," Catapang said.