Map of South China Sea
A map of the South China Sea shows the disputed islands. Wikipedia

China’s plan to kick off cruise tourism to a chain of disputed islands in the South China Sea in time for the May Day holiday is likely to reignite a long-running territorial row and exacerbate tensions with regional neighbors.

Tan Li, executive vice governor of the southernmost province of Hainan, told state media Saturday that China would let tourists visit the Paracel Islands -- known as the Xisha Islands in China -- on liveaboard cruise ships, given the island chain’s lack of adequate tourism facilities. The tourists would eat and sleep on the ship and visit the islands for sightseeing.

“The tour prices will be relatively high due to the high costs of tourism infrastructure construction,” Huang Huaru, general manager of a tourism agency in Hainan, told the Xinhua news agency. Huaru added that the islands could handle only a small number of visitors due to the fragile environment.

One cruise ship with a capacity of 1,965 passengers is reportedly ready for sailing. Another is under construction by Hainan Harbor and Shipping Holdings Co., Xinhua said.

Some 40 islets, reefs and sandbanks make up the disputed Paracel Islands. Last summer, the Chinese government built offices in a new city called Sansha on the 2-kilometer-long Woody Island, aka Yongxing Island, which boasts the island chain’s only hotel with 56 rooms.

Xinhua said the city acts as the administration hub for the more than 200 islands that make up the Paracel (Xisha), Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha) and Spratly (Nansha) islands and the 2 million square kilometers of surrounding waters. It also reported that tourism would help the founding of Sansha City, and improve China’s management of the region.

The estimated 1,000 residents of China’s newest city rely on deliveries of fresh water and other materials to survive. According to online photographs, the island has a bank, supermarket, sports facilities and several clusters of modest dwellings.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, despite exclusive economic zones guaranteed to other nations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The People’s Republic of China has occupied the Paracel Islands in particular since a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974. However, its increasing presence in the South China Sea has angered Vietnam, the Philippines and other regional neighbors. It’s also caused considerable consternation in Washington.

Former Premier Wen Jiabao said in his address opening China’s parliament last month that Beijing should “develop the marine economy ... and safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests.”

The South China Sea is home to vital shipping lanes and a substantial amount of proven and estimated oil and gas deposits. Nations with rivaling claims to portions of the vast sea include Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. China is also engaged in a separate dispute with Japan over the East China Sea.