A recent visit to the Philippines-occupied Pag-asa Island territory in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) by key congressional leaders, led by House Speaker Martin Romualdez, has sparked discussions about the initial efforts of the municipality of Kalayaan to promote it as a tourist destination.

Some congressional leaders are proposing that in operating such a tour, which Rep. Zaldy Co of Ako Bicol Partylist suggested could be branded as a Maldives-type of destination, Chinese nationals shall not be discriminated despite Beijing’s blatant aggression towards the country in the WPS.

Some time ago, the local government unit organized a visit to Pag-asa and some islands in Kalayaan for tourism industry stakeholders and selected media representatives in what was billed as a simulation of how a tour could be organized.

No masterplan has been made for such an enterprise, not to mention the funding that will be needed to make it happen. While the logistical requirements of running a viable tourism-based business venture in Kalayaan islands may not be insurmountable, the risks involved in such an undertaking at this time render the idea counterintuitive.

The same set of challenges and disincentives posed by China’s belligerence and intransigence in asserting its territorial claims over the entire South China Sea is faced by a separate but similar initiative in Congress to declare parts of the WPS as a marine protected area. Even if this hurdles the legislative process, it will most assuredly become a dead-letter law, given Beijing’s adamant refusal to recognize the international arbitral ruling won by the Philippines over the territory.

Needless to say, the all important task at hand is to convince or pressure China to adhere to international norms to achieve some degree of peace and stability in the entire South China Sea. Only then can initiatives such as tourism development, marine conservation, or joint exploitation by any parties involved in the dispute become a realistic possibility.

Co has suggested that the Philippines welcome Chinese tourists to a group of disputed islands and reefs in Kalayaan town in an effort to promote productive cooperation in the South China Sea.

He pitched the creation of a master plan to transform the Kalayaan islands into the ‘Maldives of the world.’

“We want to encourage the master planning of Kalayaan islands. If you look at its eight islands, it looks like Maldives,” said Co.

He believes that, instead of engaging in military posturing in the region, promoting tourism and cooperation would represent a more constructive approach.

Speaker Romualdez, who led the delegation to Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys, shared his vision for developing the Kalayaan Islands into a tourist destination reminiscent of the Maldives.

The proposal aims to shift the focus away from territorial disputes and toward enhancing the economic and tourist potential of the area.

Co believes that attracting Chinese tourists to these islands could be an effective way to achieve that goal.

The local government of Palawan has actively promoted tourism in the area through organized expedition tours to the disputed islands.

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