Chinese cruise ships will regularly bring tourists to the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea by 2020, reports said Wednesday, as tensions mount in the region.
Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the strategically vital South China Sea, despite rival claims from Southeast Asian neighbours, and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
Chinese companies already operate cruises — for Chinese nationals only — to the Paracel Islands.
A new proposal seeks to develop routes to the Spratlys, much further south, said the China Daily, which is published by the government.
It cited a document released by authorities in the southern island province of Hainan, from where the ships will depart.
“The Nansha Islands are virgin territory for China’s tourism industry,” provincial tourism official Sun Xiangtao told the paper, using the Spratlys’ Chinese name.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and the Philippines all have rival claims over portions of the Spratlys.
Chinese tourists have been allowed to travel to non-militarised areas of the South China Sea since 2013, but foreign passport-holders are not allowed to join the trips.
A previous China Daily report said the mayor of Sansha city, on Woody Island in the Paracels, estimated that some 30,000 people have already visited, and “many people with a patriotic spirit want to try it”.