A lawmaker has suggested the Philippines welcome Chinese tourists to a group of disputed South China Sea islands, which it is aiming to turn into the new “Maldives of the world” even as the country is locked in an increasingly tense maritime row with Beijing.
Zaldy Co said the expedition to the Manila-held islands and reefs in Kalayaan, also known as the Spratly Islands, was a way to make the area productive than flexing military muscle there.
“We want to encourage the master planning of Kalayaan islands. If you look at its eight islands, it looks like Maldives,” Co said. He was part of a congressional delegation that visited the Spratlys last week.
“We’re seeing a potential of not only making it more friendly and maybe we can also attract Chinese tourists to go there.
“So instead of fighting over it, let’s just make the islands productive,” he said.
The Philippines has a military garrison on one of the Spratly Islands, a hotly contested outcrop in the resource-rich waterway.
Co added the contingent also agreed on creating a master plan and developing Kalayaan into the new Maldives of the world, The Manila Bulletin reported.
The Maldives, nestled in the Indian Ocean, is popular for its pristine beaches that draw travellers from around the world.
The island nation attracted more than 150,000 foreign tourists, including 28,939 Chinese in August.
Martin Romualdez, Speaker of the House of Representatives, who led the team to Pagasa island, one of the biggest Philippine-controlled feature in the Spratlys, said the former and Kalayaan could be developed into a Maldives-type tourist destination.
The Kalayaan group of islands is located more than 450km (280 miles) west of Palawan, a province facing the South China Sea.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines in July deployed additional patrol ships, air force assets and troops to Kalayaan, where Chinese vessels have been frequently spotted.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost all the South China Sea – where the Philippines and several other nations have competing claims – and does not recognise a non-binding 2016 arbitral ruling on the territorial dispute in Manila’s favour.
The proposal to promote Kalayaan for tourism was first mooted by the municipality that administers the group of islands in 2015.
In March, the local council launched its maiden week-long tour of the South China Sea, where passengers aboard a coastguard ship visited three Philippine-held islands and engaged in fishing and diving.
“We want this to happen because we want everybody to know that it is possible. Our product model is working … and it can generate money. We just need to have the right investment,” the Nikkei Asia quoted Kalayaan’s tourism programme manager Ken Hupanda, who helped organise the US$2,400-per-person trip, as saying.
Source : SCMP