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Thu, May 25, 2000 - Page 2 News List

First tourists pay a visit to strategic Pratas islands

STAFF WRITER

The Pratas Islands (東沙), also known as the Tungsha, in the South China Sea, officially opened to tourists on Sunday, as the first 120 visitors arrived on a cruise ship after a 14-hour voyage.

The islands are strategically important to the military, and were previously off-limits to civilians.

Regular troops stationed on the island began being replaced at the beginning of this year by marine police from the newly established Coast Guard Administration (海岸巡防署).

The Pratas Islands are situated 430km southwest of the southernmost tip of Taiwan. The biggest island is a mere 8km wide.

Out of reach of human activities for decades, the island group's diversified wildlife and rich ecosystems have been well preserved.

The islands have been at the center of territorial dispute between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei in recent years, and the government reasoned that opening the islands to tourism would be an assertion of Taiwan's sovereignty over the islands and a way of developing resources in the South China Sea.

Kaohsiung City Mayor Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), under whose juristiction the islands fall, announced earlier this year that NT$29 million would be spent to develop the Pratas into an ecological preservation area and tourism zone.

Until now, there has been no basic infrastructure on the islands and there is no fresh water and electricity supply. The plan, say city officials, is to develop the islands into a center for scuba diving, fishing and other water sports.

However, officials said that to preserve the environment, development will be kept to a minimum, as will the number of visitors permitted to travel to the islands.

Military hardware on the island group has recently been upgraded with the addition of Chaparral surface-to-air missiles -- a derivative of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile -- with a range of 3km to 10km.

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