The Paracel Islands (Chinese: 西沙群岛, Xīshā Qúndǎo; Vietnamese: Quần đảo Hoàng Sa) are an archipelago in the South China Sea, administered by China as part of Hainan Province, but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. They are a minor destination for patriotic Chinese citizens, not yet open to visitors from other countries.
The Paracels now have a small population of Chinese residents, mainly fishermen, who are encouraged to move here in order to bolster the Chinese government's territorial claims. (Each resident receives a daily subsidy from the government.) The islands also receive cruises from mainland China; they're seen as a patriotic destination for Chinese tourists eager to help defend their country's territory.
China has announced plans to open the islands to resort-style tourism. In the meantime, a greenification project is turning them into "green jewels deep in the South China Sea" with coconut trees and many other plants, and the Chinese government is rapidly building infrastructure.
The islands are officially organized as Sansha City (三沙市 Sānshā Shì) of Hainan Province, with the main settlement and administrative center located on Yongxing Island (永兴岛 Yǒngxīng Dǎo, aka Woody Island). Sansha is China's smallest city by land area but the largest by maritime territory.
This tropical archipelago, about one-third of the way from central Vietnam to the northern Philippines, is composed of 130 small coral islands and reefs divided into the northeast Amphitrite Group and the western Crescent Group. It is surrounded by productive fishing grounds and by potential oil and gas reserves. It was first occupied by the French in 1884, though the occuption was protested by the Chinese government. In 1932, French Indochina annexed the islands and set up a weather station on Pattle Island; maintenance was continued by its successor, South Vietnam. China has occupied the Paracel Islands since 1974, when its troops seized a South Vietnamese garrison occupying the western islands. Following the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the South Vietnamese claim has been maintained by the unified Vietnam.
The weather is hot and humid.
Due to the sensitive security situation, China only allows Chinese nationals to visit the islands. Access is denied to foreign visitors and to residents of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
If you're dying to set eyes on these islands, at best you might be able to get a glimpse of them from the air. Flights between the Pearl River Delta (Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen) and Kuala Lumpur or Singapore sometimes fly over them.
There are cruises to the Paracels from Sanya, but again, they're only open to mainland Chinese citizens. Most of the cruises last four or five days and include visits to Yagong Island (鸭公岛), Quanfu Island (全富岛), and Yinyu Island (银屿).
It's possible for mainland Chinese citizens to fly to Yongxing Island for day trips.
Singing and dancing performances are put on for cruise passengers.
The islands themselves aren't very interesting. Until the planned resorts get built, the draw here is patriotism, not beachgoing. But you can participate in a Chinese flag-raising ceremony, sing the national anthem, and watch a film about the battle over these islands in 1974. And go for a swim.
Some cruises include diving.
Yagong Island has a seafood restaurant.
Handicrafts (bracelets and necklaces) and seafood are sold by the fishermen on Yagong Island.
More standard shopping (convenience stores etc.) can be found on Beijing Road, the main street in town on Yongxing Island.
There are no hotels in the Paracel Islands. Cruise passengers sleep on the ship.