Missile destroyers, artificial islands, naval bases, and raided Vietnamese fishing boats: a territorial dispute or a Chinese tourist destination? Why not both?

Chinese state media went on full blast after a July ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which unanimously ruled against China’s claims in the South China Sea. State media such as China Daily and Xinhua, on the other hand, argued that the ruling was “ill-founded” and stressed China’s claims within the so-called nine-dash line. Besides the typical evidence such as old maps with lines drawn on them, the physical presence of Chinese people on some of these islands (or rocks, as the Hague defined them) is used to further China’s claims. Many of these Chinese people on the disputed rocks? Tourists.

With Chinese tourists becoming an increasingly important diplomatic tool for China, it should probably not come as a surprise as they’re used to further territorial claims in addition to their roles as nuclear deterrents in South Korea, and as a negotiating tool along the “New Silk Road.” With North Korea nuking Seoul meaning risking the lives of tens of thousands of Chinese tourists who happen to be nationals of its closest ally, it may just be the most powerful nuclear deterrent on the Korean peninsula since the start of the conflict. Could Chinese tourists in the South China Sea be an equally effective solution to a completely different conflict?

Chinese tourism to the Paracel Islands (or Xisha as they’re known in Chinese) began in 2013, and is, despite recently constructed air strips, exclusively catered to by cruise ships of varying levels of extravagance. Even though Chinese infrastructure projects on the rocks have been ongoing for years, tourism infrastructure has been a low-level priority, and the cruise ships thus provide the necessary infrastructure for tourism to be possible. In total, three rocks can be visited by Chinese tourists: He Duck (Yagong Dao), Silver Islet (Yin Yu), and All Wealth (Quanfu Dao)—in total encompassing an area of approximately 0.015 square miles. In comparison, Indonesia’s Bali island has an area of approximately 2,238 square miles.

It may not look like much, but many visitors consider it their patriotic duty to set foot on the Paracel Islands. (Ctrip)

It may not look like much, but many visitors consider it their patriotic duty to set foot on the Paracel Islands. (Ctrip)

Aside from a few wooden huts and stranded rafts, the main structural feature is a flagpole that is used for the main event of guided tours to the Paracel Islands: the flag raising ceremony.

With so-called red tourism on the rise, travel to places with ties to the history of communism—“patriotic tourism” to contested islands may just be another step towards the politicization of Chinese tourism, at least in the neighboring region. Chinese tourism to Taiwan drastically declined after independence-leaning Tsai Ing-Wen was elected president, and tourism to Hong Kong has suffered from the political turbulence surrounding 2014’s Umbrella Revolution.

The flag raising ceremony is one of the highlights of trips to the South China Sea. (screen capture from the BBC)

The flag raising ceremony is one of the highlights of trips to the South China Sea. (screen capture from the BBC)

The most quoted reason for visiting the three rocks in the Paracel Islands is indeed patriotism, with some travelers calling it their patriotic duty to visit the islands. The flag raising ceremony involves holding your fist in the air and repeating a short oath after the tour leader: “I love the motherland. I love the Paracel Islands,” as the flag is raised.

Other highlights, according to Chinese visitors to the Paracel Islands, include experiencing the natural beauty of the islands, as well as getting the chance to take tropical-themed wedding photos at beaches less crowded than those in China. In fact, tourism to the disputed islands is often promoted as a cheaper alternative to Bali and other popular islands for wedding photos. While the dead coral reefs surrounding the islands as well as the subpar tourism infrastructure in no way make them a strong competitor to destinations such as Bali and Thailand, a four-day cruise to the islands may just be the most efficient way to capture exotic wedding photos while coincidentally performing a “patriotic duty.”

Tours are competitively priced thanks to government subsidies. (screen capture from Ctrip)

Tours are competitively priced thanks to government subsidies. (screen capture from Ctrip)

But the low prices are no coincidence, with Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) largely responsible for everything related to tours to the disputed islands. The Coconut Fragrance Princess Cruise, for example, made losses that were offset by subsidies from the government to keep operating. With China’s Hainan island to the north infamously overcrowded by domestic tourists, the Paracel Islands’ beaches could eventually present a competitor for Chinese tourists looking to get away from the crowds. If it will become a profitable venture remains to be seen.

Due to a lack of entertainment options on the islands, the cruise ships host a variety of shows to entertain the passengers. (Ctrip)

Due to a lack of entertainment options on the islands, the cruise ships host a variety of shows to entertain the passengers. (Ctrip)

And while tourists may proudly declare that patriotism and natural beauty are reason enough to visit the islands, the tour operators certainly seem to think otherwise. Tours to the Paracel Islands are promoted by highlighting the cheap prices and onboard entertainment. Bizarrely, the Chinese SOEs responsible for the tours are hosting dance performances by women dressed in skimpy American-style cheerleader uniforms as well as provocative performances by “cat women” to entertain travelers on their way to the disputed islands. However, some arguably more informative entertainment is also available on the cruise ships, including a state-produced documentary about the battles between China and South Vietnam over the islands.

Over 10,000 Chinese tourists in three years may not seem like a lot next to other overseas destinations in the region—but it can also be considered quite the achievement considering the minuscule size of the rocks and the subpar range of activities and sights offered. Local stakeholders want to expand tourism to more islands in the disputed sea, but pending both government and military approval, Chinese tourism in the South China Sea is likely to remain limited to a few rocks in the Paracel Islands. If the July Hague ruling will expedite the expansion to more contested rocks remains to be seen.

While the prospect of an onslaught of Chinese tourists in the South China Sea may be perceived as threatening to neighboring countries’ militaries, their tourism industries have little to fear. After all, 10,000 Chinese tourists in three years is a number close to the 7,000 Chinese tourists that Vietnam welcomes on an average day. Besides, only Chinese passport holders are allowed to visit the rocks—making them unlikely to compete for Western tourists.

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