Philippines plans tours to disputed Spratly islands
The Philippines will develop a disputed island it claims in the South China Sea as a tourist destination, the military chief has said.
Gen Gregorio Catapang made the announcement on a trip to Pagasa, one of the nine islands claimed by Manila in the Spratly archipelago.
He said a ferry service from nearby Palawan would be launched next year.
China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, resulting in overlapping claims with its neighbours.
It has been developing some islands and reefs on a large scale - alarming others in the region - but says the work is legal and necessary for safeguarding its sovereignty.
The US Pentagon has said that while the aim of the expansion activity remains unclear, China is "improving its defence infrastructure in the South China Sea".
'Dying to come here'
Pagasa - known internationally as Thitu and in China as Zhong Ye Dao - currently has about 100 people living on it and a small Philippine military detachment. There are no tourist facilities apart from its airstrip.
Gen Catapang, visiting the island on Monday, said the military would help with local government plans to develop the island for tourism, including starting a ferry service next year.
He also said they would expand the existing runway on the island and develop the fishing industry.
Eugenio Bito-onon, the mayor of the municipality of Kalayaan in Palawan province - which includes Pagasa - said the tourism project would be popular.
"For the past 20 years, a lot of people have been dying to come here but cannot because of the inadequate [infrastructure]. There is no regular transportation," Mr Bito-onon said.
The ferry taking tourists from Palawan to Pagasa, a distance of about 160 km (100 miles), would pass by all the islands in the Spratly archipelago held by Manila, Gen Catapang told reporters.
"It can be a good tourism effort," he said.
"Our message to our Filipino brothers and sisters is to help Mayor Bito-onon to jumpstart his tourism for peace because... if there will be tourism, you will help the economy here," Gen Catapang said.
Existing tourist sights around Pagasa
- The dilapidated Sierra Madre ship owned by the Philippine Navy, anchored near the Ayungin shoal. Filipino soldiers live on-board to secure the perimeter of the Spratly group of islands.
- A non-functional jetty - construction began on one more than 10 years ago but the ship bringing supplies got stuck on the reef and is still there today.
- Concrete bunkers that were built along the shoreline that are now sliding into the sea, rusted anti-aircraft guns.
- Sandy beaches and crystal clear waters.
- A functional air strip.
US officials say China's construction projects on and around disputed South China Sea islands has reclaimed 810 hectares (2,000 acres) of land since the beginning of 2014, and that it is expanding its programme.
The Philippines military has said the activity could be aimed at turning some of the islands into large naval and air bases.
Major Ferdinand Atos, the most senior military officer stationed on Pagasa, said the Chinese reclamation was worrying.
"We are concerned with the creeping invasion," Maj Atos said. "Two years ago they were not there, now you see them getting closer."
Gen Catapang vowed to defend Pagasa and other islands claimed by the Philippines from aggression.
"According to our constitution these are our regime of islands and we have to protect our regime of islands, in as much as they form our territory and sovereignty," Gen Catapang said.