Asia-Pacific

China to offer islands for hire

File image of a fisherman on a rocky outcrop in Hong Kong on 31 October 2010 Image copyright AFP
Image caption The plans will allow investors and private individuals to rent offshore getaways

How would you like to rent your own Chinese island, not for a two week summer vacation but for half a century?

Perhaps you have always dreamed of that ultimate getaway, a remote home on a rocky outcrop, or a spot to fish far away from other anglers.

Last year China passed a law that allows individuals or companies to hire uninhabited islands off the country's coast.

Now the first 30 plots of island real estate are about to be offered for rent.

This first batch is probably the most suitable for reclamation, officials have told the country's state media, as the islands are the closest to the mainland.

And they say there is no legal reason why foreigners or foreign companies cannot hire one for themselves.

Those renting will not have the freedom to do exactly what they want.

They will have to convince local government officials and ecologists that their plans will not harm the environment.

Image caption State media says the first islands for hire are off four cities in Zhejiang

Nonetheless, ocean expert Wang Shicheng says with a bit of imagination, the islands could pay dividends for those prepared to put the investment in.

"Some could be used for tourism, for restaurants or entertainment," he says. "Or a nursing home perhaps."

"Rich people might even decide they like a particular island and want to build themselves a cottage."

Rustic retreats

The province of Zhejiang has nearly 3,000 islands off its coast. Most have an area of 500-1,000 sq m (5382-10,764 sq ft), so some are as small as a school football pitch.

That will bring challenges.

"On many of them access to fresh water would be quite problematic - although I assume there would be various schemes to overcome these issues," says Professor Andrew Marton from the University of Nottingham Ningbo campus in Zhejiang.

Image caption Andrew Marton says Chinese urbanites are increasingly drawn to rural getaways

"Some may be close enough that they can lay water pipelines or string electricity cables across from the mainland though."

For others the isolation may be the main selling point.

"There's a growing market for people in China to take up what you might call 'rustic activities' to escaped the cramped quarters and the things we associate with life in a big city," the professor says.

Zhejiang's Ocean and Fisheries Bureau told the BBC they could not yet confirm the prices for hiring an island.

The State Council in Beijing, China's cabinet, will have the final say on rental rates, but the newspapers here have suggested the price could be as little as $15,000 (£9,320) a year - or it could be 10 times that.

Ocean expert Mr Wang says the authorities will need to exercise care over whom they rent to and what kind of development is allowed because "some islands are too eco-sensitive or too small".

"Even the tiniest bit of development could destroy their ecosystems," he says.

Strategic move?

China may be keen to encourage greater use of the outcrops of its coast for territorial reasons.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Japan and China fell out last year over disputed small islands or rocks in the East China Sea

It is involved in disputes with its neighbours over the ownership of certain islands in the South and East China seas.

By developing more of the islands closer to its coast, China may hope to extend the area it regards as its exclusive economic zone further from its coastline into the sea.

A similar effort to develop uninhabited islands off the east coast of China in 2003 ran into problems, as developers realised how costly it was to transport construction materials to them and get access to supplies of electricity and water.

This time the authorities will be hoping there are more adventurous individuals or firms willing to give it a try.

Foreigners, it appears, if not welcomed, will not be barred from such an investment.

Officials in Zhejiang have told the country's state media there's no limit on who can apply for the right to use an island as long as they stay within the law.

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