Philippines uses tourism to assert sovereignty at disputed South China Sea 

Since 2023, the Philippines has been organizing tours to the Kalayaan Island Group, in the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea, in trying to assert sovereignty. The Spratly Islands comprise around 100 small islands and reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially gas and oil deposits. They are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

According to news outlet Channel News Asia (CNA), the seven-day tour aboard a dive yacht, the Great Kalayaan or Freedom Expedition, costs about US$2,000 per person. The first tour was launched on June 2, 2023, consisting of water sports enthusiasts, academics and members of the media. Filipino diver Bretch Garcinez, part of the tour group, said nationalism played an important role in his decision to go despite the cost. The tour was marketed as an opportunity to witness in person the military might of China and sightings of Chinese vessels.

The CNA report also quoted tour yatch’s chief engineer Wilfredo Baladjay as saying “I cannot accept why the island’s connection is with China. (Pagasa) is the Philippines. Why did it become China?”, referring to mobile phone connection and the fact that he received an automated message from a telecom company welcoming him to China.

The Great Kalayaan tour, organized by the Kalayaan Tourism Development Center, starts at Puerto Princesa, Palawan, and features five destinations, including Lawak Island, Patag Island, and Pag-asa Island.

On the Pag-asa Island (also known as Thitu Island), the Philippine government has reportedly built a runway, sheltered port, a beaching ramp at the tip of the airstrip, a lighthouse, a five-bed lying-in clinic, a communication tower, and a small integrated elementary and high school. In 1971, the island was seized by the Philippines from the Republic of China (Taiwan), and is administered as part of the Kalayaan municipality of Palawan Province. 

Alan Chong, associate professor, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, told Voice of America during the 2019 Indo-Pacific Defense Forum that tourism is “a form of virtual occupation and a statement of sovereignty because tourism means that there is legitimization of civilian activity in these so-called contested territories. It’s a way of ensuring that these islands will be perpetually occupied.”

Similarly, Fabrizio Bozzato, fellow, Taiwan Strategy Research Association, said: “The Philippines will demonstrate what in international law doctrine is called actual control and use of that particular island, so that will corroborate the Philippine claim not only on Thitu but also the nine islands that Manila controls.”

On the other hand, China is also using tourism to assert sovereignty. Author Rowen Ian, in his paper “Tourism as a territorial strategy in the South China Sea”, said that under the auspice of the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China, China has been using tourism as a tactic in the South China Sea to assert not only military and administrative control over the region, but to promote patriotic sentiment among its own citizens. He also stated that China’s sovereignty claims were circulated to travel industry actors, tourists, and bloggers, to promote further tourism development.

Photo credit: iStock/ Michael Edwards. Patar beach, Bolinao, Pangsinan, Philippines, June 2022.

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