A southern Chinese province’s plan to offer visa-free tourism could lead some visitors to explore the disputed South China Sea.
Hainan, an island province, plans to allow visa-free travel to visitors from 59 countries beginning May 1, state-run media reports. The travelers will be allowed to stay for up to 30 days.
Some experts who study the area say the visa decision has opened the door for visitors seeking to visit the South China Sea.
Zhao Xijun is with the School of Finance at Renmin University of China. He says some tourists might be interested to set foot on Chinese-claimed islands and reefs southeast of Hainan.
The area is home to the Paracels, a group of islands controlled by China, but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
“This is something for the future. It’s not just for outside visitors, but domestic travelers also will try hard in this direction,” Zhao said.
Collin Koh is a security researcher at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He says opening the Paracels to foreign travelers could also help China politically. It could be a way for China to support its sovereignty claims and show that it controls administration activities in the area, he said.
“It actually gives you additional security,” Koh said. “Because if you have foreigners from different countries all over the world in that place, it decreases the chance of any other people taking rash actions against you.”
Six governments have competing claims in the South China Sea, which acts as a pathway for one-third of the world’s shipping traffic. China claims most of the sea as its territory and often sends coast guard ships throughout the waterway.
In recent years, China has built up man-made islands in parts of the South China Sea, some of which support military structures. The expansion has angered other nations with competing territorial claims.
China is building on at least three islands in the Paracels, an American think tank project reported last year. Woody Island, the most developed, has a population of about 1,000 people. It includes an airstrip, missile equipment, a hospital and market.
It is not clear whether foreign tourists are currently allowed to visit the Paracels, a spokesperson with China’s travel booking service Ctrip.com said. An official in the southern city of Sanya said Friday the local government website would eventually post information on who is permitted to visit the South China Sea.
Lin Qi is an assistant researcher with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan province. He says visitors to the Paracels would expect China to keep the area’s sea environment clean so tourists can enjoy the beauty of the area.
“From the openness to tourism perspective, you definitely need a place with a good natural environment to give it value,” Lin said. He added that if tourism opens up in the area, fishing activities would have to be greatly reduced.
China’s first cruise ship set out for the Paracels in 2013. In 2016, a Chinese airline began flights from the Hainan’s capital Haikou to Woody Island. In March 2017, a cruise ship from China took 300 people to the Paracels. Vietnam protested the move, arguing that it has sovereignty over the area.
Vietnam and Malaysia have also opened up small islands in the South China Sea to tourists in an effort to back up their territorial claims.
I’m Bryan Lynn.
Ralph Jennings reported this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
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Words in This Story
tourism – n. the activity of traveling to a place for pleasure
allow – n. permit
actually – adj. used to stress that a statement is true especially when it differs in some way from what might have been thought or expected
reef – n. a line of rocks or sand near the surface of the sea
domestic – adj. inside one country, not international
think tank – n. an organization that consists of a group of people who think of new ideas on a particular subject or who give advice about what should be done
sovereignty – n. a country's independent authority and the right to govern itself
rash – adj. done suddenly and without thinking carefully
perspective – n. a way of looking at or thinking about things
cruise – n. a trip on a boat for pleasure