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Islands known as Xishas in China and the Paracels elsewhere are claimed by Vietnam, but are administered by Hainan island.
China plans to open up the contested Xisha (or Paracel) islands to mass tourism in time for the May Day holiday, in a move that will likely draw the ire of fellow claimants Vietnam and Taiwan.
Hainan island executive vice-governor Tan Li made the announcement at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference, noting that cruise tours would now be allowed to visit the contested area.
Read more from GlobalPost: China approves supply dock project in disputed islands
Xinhua noted that a 47,000 ton cruise ship that could accommodate 1,965 passengers was currently ready for sailing to the islands, and another ship was being built to make the journey.
Analysts suspect the move is meant to put a point on China's claim of total sovereignty over the islands, which Vietnam has long claimed as part of its own territory — as well as Taiwan.
The controversy goes completely unmentioned in the Xinhua article on the new tourism announcement, although Tan noted that local authorities planned to improve the tourism infrastructure at Shansa, the only settlement of note in the island group.
There is currently only one hotel on the island group and no fresh water, meaning that tourists would have to stay aboard their ships, notes the BBC.
In March 2013, Vietnam claimed that the Chinese had illegally fired on one of their fishing boats in the area, while China claimed that it had only fired flares to ward off illegal fishing vessels.