Beijing to allow tourists on disputed Paracel Islands

BEIJING - China will this month start allowing tourists to visit the Paracel Islands, one of a group of disputed islets and reefs in the South China Sea, state news agency Xinhua said, in a move likely to irk rival claimant Vietnam.

A cruise ship that can accommodate 1,965 passengers is ready for sailing to the Paracels, known in Chinese as Xisha, Xinhua reported, citing ship owner Haihang Group Corp.

Hainan Harbour and Shipping Holdings is building another cruise ship.

"Tourists will eat and sleep on the cruise ships and can land on the islands for sightseeing" ahead of Labour Day on May 1, Mr Tan Li, the vice-governor of China's southernmost island province of Hainan, told Xinhua last Saturday.

There is only one hotel with 56 rooms on the 2 sq km Woody Island, the largest island in the Paracels, the agency said.

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

Last year, Beijing approved the formal establishment of a military garrison in Sansha city on Woody Island. The city runs the mostly uninhabited islands in the South China Sea that China claims.

Mr Tan said the local authorities will build more supply ships and infrastructure in Sansha, including ports, water supply and sewage treatment facilities.

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

Last month, Vietnam accused China of opening fire on a fishing boat near the Paracels and burning down its cabin, charges Beijing denied.

Beijing also has overlapping claims with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines in other parts of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands. It has a separate dispute with Japan in the East China Sea.

Taiwan yesterday announced plans to expand a pier on one of the disputed Spratly Islands, Taiping, this year, as part of its efforts to boost defence capabilities there.

China is in an increasingly angry dispute with its neighbours over the claims to parts of the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea. It lays claim to almost the whole sea that is criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes.