South China Sea
A general view of a building and a pier on Da Tay island in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, Jan. 6, 2013. REUTERS/Quang Le

China is planning to make certain islands in the contested South China Sea into tourist attractions similar to Maldives, a top officer told state-run China Daily newspaper Friday. Beijing’s assertiveness in the disputed region has attracted criticism from several countries, including the U.S., which accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea.

In 2013, the world’s second-largest economy started tourist cruises to the South China Sea on a trial basis. The newspaper did not mention if foreigners would be allowed to visit the islands and reefs in the region. So far, only Chinese nationals have been permitted to travel to the disputed area.

China plans to turn the islands and reefs into destinations catering to weddings, with new developments that do not require military presence, Xiao Jie, mayor of Sansha city on Woody Island, told China Daily. Woody Island is located in the Paracel archipelago, China’s administrative base for islands and reefs it controls in the South China Sea.

“We will develop some islands and reefs to accommodate a select number of tourists,” Xiao told the newspaper, adding: “It will be an orderly and gradual procedure.”

According to Xiao, there will be sea plane trips, island weddings, fishing and diving trips for tourists. Regular flights from Sansha to the southern Chinese island of Hainan will made available in the future, Xiao reportedly said.

“The arrival of tourists will nourish the need for divers and windsurfers,” Xiao said, adding that the cruises have become popular. “It is not an easy trip, but many people with a patriotic spirit want to try it,” he noted.

“It is our dream that one day we can fly to the capital [Beijing] from Sansha. That will definitely be fulfilled,” Xiao told China Daily.

The newspaper did not mention if islands in the Spratlys will be opened to tourists.

China lays claims to most of the region through which over $5 trillion of maritime trade passes annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims to the waters. However, Beijing has consistently defended its actions, saying it does not have any intentions of starting a conflict and that its operations will add to the safety of the region.