HAIKOU, Feb. 9 -- The Xisha Islands in the South China Sea are to become China's latest tourist hotspot, the provincial governor said Sunday.
Cruises to the islands, around 180 nautical miles away from the nearest port, got underway on a trial basis in April 2013. The trip to Xisha on the Coconut Princess, takes about 20 hours from Haikou, the main port of Hainan, China's southernmost province.
Tourists have to eat and sleep onboard the cruise ship to protect the fragile local environment and because of shortages of basic supplies, especially water.
By November 2013, the Coconut Princess had made 12 trips and taken more than 1,700 tourists to watch the sunrise and swim among the reefs and sandy shoals, according to cruise operator Hainan Strait Shipping Co.
"Hainan will work to expand Xisha tourism and improve its quality in 2014," aid Jiang Dingzhi, governor of the province, in a report to the provincial legislature's annual meeting on Sunday.
Hainan Strait Shipping plans to commission a new vessel this year, twice the size of the Coconut Princess and better equipped, said Chen Bo, secretary of the company's board .
To the southeast of Hainan, the Xisha is a cluster of islets, sandbanks and reefs, famous for their unusual tropical scenery and ecosystem.
The obvious appeal of these island paradises has led to unauthorized, and potentially disastrous, tours being spontaneously organized by nature lovers. In Jan. 2013, 24 travelers were stranded there for four days by bad weather.
Promoting tourism on the Xisha islands has been on the Chinese government's agenda for years. The State Council, China's cabinet, announced late in 2009 that Hainan would be developed as a destination for international tourists, including the Xisha Islands.
Sansha City, on Yongxing, one of the Xisha islands, was founded in July 2012 to administer about 2 million square km of islands, coastal areas and territorial waters in the South China Sea.
The city envisages tourism as its economic engine, and administers three island groups -- Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha -- along with surrounding waters in the South China Sea.
Sansha, with its changeable maritime climate, vulnerable environment and limited supplies of basic necessities, can only cope with a very small number of visitors. Nearly everything has to be imported. The supply vessel Qiongsha III is the only lifeline, bringing things like fresh water and food from the mainland. It makes a round trip once a week, weather permitting.
Visitors often become ill because of the high temperature and other extreme conditions in the Xisha islands. Medical services remain inadequate, putting the safety of visitors at risk, said Cao Chengwei, executive director of the Haikou College of Economics.
To tackle the infrastructure problems, there are plans to construct ports, hospitals, power stations, sea water purification plants and sewage treatment works in Sansha. More ships are under construction to facilitate transport.