It is not a good time yet for foreigners to visit Pag-asa Island, considered the most strategically important Philippine outpost in the West Philippine Sea, Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año said Thursday.
“It is a good island, and it is very good to put up hotels there. But probably not for (foreign) tourists muna, because that is a contested area and we do not want to compound the problem," Ano said.
"We’d rather use that hotel for our troops, government officials visiting, and our own citizens who would want to visit."
Previous reports said the government had considered inviting tourists to the island in the Spratlys, which the Philippines calls the Kalayaan Island Group off Palawan.
The island is in the midst of major upgrades to its dilapidated facilities, playing catch-up with China and Vietnam, which have been developing facilities on islands they either occupy or have built from scratch on top of submerged reefs.
Meanwhile, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said tourism on Pag-asa Island "has not been discussed."
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had said that the government "will be building structures for (Philippine) troops there and maybe some hotels for Filipinos who would like to go there as tourists."
In the Spratlys, the Philippines occupies 9 features, Malaysia 5, Taiwan 1 and Vietnam 27, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
China claims it has historic right of ownership to almost the entire sea, despite a 2016 international arbitration ruling that said Beijing's claim had no legal basis under international law.
The sea is a vital trade route with more than $3 trillion in ship-borne trade passing through it every year.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei also have overlapping claims to parts of the waters. — With reports from Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News and Reuters