China in Row with Vietnam over Tourist Plans for South China Sea Islands

(IBTimes) China has announced plans to allow tourist cruises to islands in the South China Sea, even though the archipelago is also claimed by Vietnam.

Chinese soldiers exercise during a training session at a beach on the Xisha islands

The Far Eastern superpower will let tourists visit the Xisha Islands, called the Paracel Islands in Vietnam, ahead of the forthcoming May Day holiday.

Vietnam has long disputed China's claim to the Paracel Islands, which China has occupied since a brief war between the two countries in 1974. The cluster comprises about 40 islets, sandbanks and reefs.

Hanoi last month accused a Chinese vessel of firing on one of its fishing boats which had sailed into the disputed waters.

However Tan Li, executive vice governor of the southern-most province of Hainan, told the state-run Xinhua news agency that the islands provide the perfect opportunity for cruise travel.

Tourists will eat and sleep on the cruise ships and can land on the islands for sightseeing, he added.

The announcement came as a speech from China's new President Xi Jinping called for peace and stability in the Asian region.

"Stability in Asia faces new challenges, as hotspot issues keep emerging and both traditional and non-traditional security threats exist," he said to the Times of India.

The announcement was also made from Hainan, which forms part of the headquarters of China's South China Sea naval fleet, which has begun conducting aggressive patrols in recent months.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea; in addition to the dispute with Vietnam Beijing has also been embroiled in a long-running conflict with Japan over a separate chain of islands.

Thailand has also objected to maps on the Chinese passports with a U-shaped mark claiming a stretch of the sea running in defiance of exclusive economic zones mapped out by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Tan said details on the tour routes, capacity of the tourist reception and cruise ships will be released at a later date.

China has been asserting its rights on the oil-rich islands which it has controlled since a short war with South Vietnam in 1974 (

Cruise tours are the popular choice for the islands as hotels and other facilities to accommodate tourists are inadequate, Tan said.

There is only one hotel with 56 rooms on the 2.13-square-kilometre Yongxing Island, the largest island among the group and home to the government offices of Sansha city.