China launches a tourism offensive in the South China Sea

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At first glance, the cruise itinerary for the Changle Princess is just another tropical island getaway.

Four days sailing around “unexplored islands,” diving, yoga and beach volley ball. But one item stands out at 9 am on the second day; a national flag-raising ceremony.

The reason for the odd ceremony is that the Changle Princess will be calling in at the Paracel Islands, disputed territories in the South China Sea, and one of the key selling points is the chance for Chinese tourists to show some hands-on patriotism.

The Paracel Islands are controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan and have been at the centre of rising tensions between Beijing and Washington. US warships have conducted “freedom of navigation” operations in the area where China has built harbours, airstrips and hangars. On Woody Island, the biggest in the Paracel chain, China has deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missile batteries, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).

A Chinese bomber patrols South China Sea reefs and islands.
A Chinese bomber patrols South China Sea reefs and islands. AP

The Changle Princess doesn’t visit Woody Island. It sticks to the smaller islands — Quanfu, Yinyu and Yagong — which AMTI describes as “little more than sand bars”.

However, Beijing is ramping up its tourism push into the South China Sea, announcing this week plans to start tours by air.

Xiao Jie, Party Secretary of Sansha City, which established its government headquarters on Woody Island in 2012, said at the National People’s Congress this week the priority was to expand tourism offerings.

“We are going to open more islands to tourists and build more facilities,” he said.

Hainan Strait Shipping Company (HNSS), which is listed in Shenzhen and backed by the Hainan government, has been conducting tours to the Paracel Islands since 2013. However, the Changle Princess is the first ship to be purpose-built for the journey after the company raised 230 million yuan ($44 million). It embarked on its first journey on March 2 and sets sail again on Saturday.

The cruise, which runs four times in a month, is not open to foreigners or people who live in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan and travellers must have their documents cleared by the Public Security Bureau. A bunk-bed in a six-person room costs 6,480 yuan ($1,247) while luxury suites go for as much as 33,100 yuan ($6374).

Mr Xiao said over 20,000 people have already visited the islands.

“When I saw the national flag rising up, my body was on fire,” wrote one traveller posted on the C-Trip travel web site in November last year. “I love my country; every blade of grass, every tree and every grain of sand.”

Mr Xie, a representative for HNSS who gave only his last name, said people from central and west China tended to travel for “patriotic reasons.”

“They bring their own national flags,” he said.

Asked whether the company was concerned about security for the cruise given the territory was disputed, he said: “I don’t think Vietnam or the US would dare to attack a cruise ship.”

by Lisa Murray

AFR

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