The Paracel Islands in the South China Sea consist of over 130 small coral islands, sandbanks and reefs divided into two groups, occupying an area of about 15,000 square kilometers of ocean surface. The Amphitrite Group consists of six low, narrow islands with sand cays, shallow lagoons and reefs, and the Crescent Group consists of eight islands forming a crescent-like structure enclosing a stunning deep, central lagoon.
The islands lie 180 nautical miles from Hainan Island, equidistant from the coastlines of Vietnam and Mainland China. About one-third of the way from central Vietnam to the northern Philippines, they enjoy a humid, tropical climate with perfect, warm weather year-round. Like neighboring island-province Hainan, the Paracel Islands make for the perfect tropical getaway in an unspoiled paradise, currently only experienced by the local resident turtles and seabirds.
This is dramatically different to the situation at Australia’s renowned Great Barrier Reef, where reef damage and overpopulation have led to a critical situation. Charlie Veron, former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science has stated that the Great Barrier Reef will be unrecognizable within 20 years. ‘There is no way out, no loopholes. The Great Barrier Reef will be over within 20 years or so’, he said. Coral reefs of Queensland’s coast may be facing extinction within the next 50 years, destroying Australia’s East Coast.
On the contrary, due to location, climate and a history of being left untouched, the Paracel Islands boast fresh, pollution-free air, crystal clear water and a completely undamaged and intricate marine ecosystem. Aside from swimming with sea turtles, there are more than 400 species of coral and oceanic fish living amongst the islands.
The coral reefs that make up the island are like an intricate system of icebergs; the rocks that rise above the water’s surface are only the very tip of an extensive system of spectacular coral that stretch around the archipelago. The incredible clarity of water means scuba divers can enjoy perfect visibility year-round with clear water up to 40 meters deep. Without doubt, the Paracel Islands are sure to fast become one of the world’s most popular scuba diving destinations, and an affordable and enticing alternative to the Great Barrier Reef.
While there are currently no permanent human inhabitants, this is all set to change as the Chinese Government has announced big plans to open the Paracel Islands up to resort-style tourism, starting with Yonggxing Island. As the world has gradually learned of Hainan’s year-round warm water, sun-soaked days and barmy evenings, it is little wonder that the flow of visitors to area has surged so dramatically and with developments in the Paracel Island this is sure to increase even more.
Above the water’s surface live over 40 bird species making the Islands a close and affordable Galapagos Island for Australian visitors. Resort development on the island will complete this dream, making for one of the most luxurious yet affordable holiday destinations with pristine beaches, world-class diving and the freshest seafood.
In the past there have been no accommodation options available for tourists, so visitor flow has been limited. Opening the archipelago up to resort-style tourism will be part of the Chinese government’s plan to boost the reputation for the Hainan province as one of the top international tourism destinations by 2020.
The Islands have been controlled by China since 1974 and open for tourism as of 1997, with a Naval Museum and a Maritime Museum already established on Woody Island as well as an airstrip. China also plans to build a solar energy powered desalination plant on the island for fresh water.
With empty, tropical beaches with warm and crystal clear water, year-round sun and 518km of breathtaking coastline, it is without doubt that the Paracel Islands will quickly become the next hot destination for travelers seeking the true virgin island experience. And as we hear more and more about the effects of overpopulation on the Great Barrier Reef, the Paracel Islands are set to be the perfect alternative that Australian divers are craving.
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