Vietnam’s Newest Tourist Destination: The Spratlys

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Vietnam’s Newest Tourist Destination: The Spratlys

How Hanoi deploys tourism as a weapon in its simmering dispute with Beijing over South China Sea sovereignty.

Vietnam has joined China and the Philippines in their attempt to use tourism as a means of legitimizing control of disputed regions in the South China Sea.

Today, Reuters reported that Vietnam will offer a special “sovereignty” cruise for a selected group of patriotic citizens – “the holiday of a lifetime,” according to the international news agency, which reviewed a recently published tourist brochure on the Saigon Tourist Corporation’s website.

Prospective cruise passengers will have the chance to visit two reefs and two islands in the contested Spratlys (Truong Sa in Vietnamese), according to the document. The islands are claimed by both Hanoi and Beijing as well as other regional powers. In March 1988, the territorial conflict between China and Vietnam briefly turned bloody when Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces clashed, resulting in the death of 60 Vietnamese sailors.

However, the offer neither specifically addresses the ongoing political disputes, nor does it mention the Spratlys’ violent past. Indeed, the brochure reads like a Caribbean holiday promotion: “In a special $800 promotion offer, 180 Vietnamese will get to see parts of the disputed Spratly archipelago later this month and take part in night fishing, visit a lighthouse and enjoy local seafood.”

Additionally, the document advertises the natural beauty of the isles:

See 300 species of coral creating wonderful reefs in sparkling colors, in ravishing, fantastic beauty. Watch the sunrise over the ocean, and say goodbye to the sunset in the evening amid the immense sky and sea.

However, the political dimension and motivation behind the cruise is undeniable for the brochure emphasizes that the trip is meant to “arouse national pride and citizen consciousness of the sacred sovereignty of the country (…) Guests will attend the national flag-raising ceremony, commemorate the heroic martyrs, visit a pagoda, get on the lighthouse for a panoramic view of the island, explore the daily life of citizens and troops on the island.”

As of now, the cruise excursion is a trial run and there are no confirmed reports that Vietnam will begin regular service, although there are tentative plans to put the Spratlys on the country’s tourism map, including scheduled passenger flights Reuters notes.

Vietnam has established 48 outposts on the Spratlys, whereas China maintains eight. Today, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei condemned Hanoi’s “sovereignty” cruise concept:

Vietnam’s actions violate China’s sovereignty. We demand that Vietnam respect China’s sovereignty, not take actions that complicate or magnify the situation, and make proper efforts to safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea. 

Since late 2012, China has been running a cruise ship, the “Coconut Princess,” on monthly or bimonthly trips to the Spratly islands carrying around 200 passengers each time. As my colleague Shannon Tiezzi reported before, Vietnam objected strongly to these trips. Thanh Nien News, a state-affiliated paper called the cruises “the latest in a series of unilaterally provocative actions in the area.”