Sansha is a prefecture of the People's Republic of China's Hainan province which administers (actually or nominally) several island groups and undersea atolls in the South China Sea, comprising the Spratly and Paracel Islands as well as the Macclesfield Bank. The entire territory is disputed, and China's de facto control over the area varies. Sansha has equal administrative status to a prefecture-level city, and was created on 24 July 2012.
The establishment of Sansha is simply an upgrade of the administrative status of these island groups from the previous county-level Administrative Office, and construction of a city is not actually underway. A garrison may be established, however. The US State Department called the change in the administrative status of the territory "unilateral", and the move has received criticism from two nations engaged in the South China Sea dispute, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The centre of government for Sansha is located on Yongxing (Woody) Island in the Paracels, where some 600 Chinese civilians reside. Woody Island is the largest of the islands in the Paracel and Spratly groups with an area of about 5 square miles (13 km2). Nationally, Sansha is the smallest prefecture-level city by both population and land area but the largest by water area and the southernmost.
There is a common saying in China that "traveling abroad is easy compared to a trip to the Paracels". Indeed, before the 1970s, the only means of transportation to and from the islands were by hiring fishers' boats, and even then only Woody Island was accessible, while the rest of the Paracels, the Zhongsha Islands and the Spratlys were only accessible to military personnel. The situation was improved in 1977 with the construction of a freighter given approval by then Premier Zhou Enlai. Having a tonnage of 2160 tonnes and a maximum load of 200 personnel, the "Qiongsha 1" (literally "Hainan-South China Sea Islands 1") freighter carried supplies and personnel between Woody Island and Hainan Island. In 1997, "Qiongsha 1" was destroyed in a typhoon while en route to Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province for routine maintenance and upkeep. A smaller "Qiongsha 2" freighter at 1410 tonnes and a load of 100 personnel was commissioned that same year. It operated for 10 years, and was decommissioned in January 2007.
As of 2008, the "lifeboat" of the islands is the "Qiongsha 3" freighter (Tonnage: 2500 tonnes; Load: 200 personnel; Payload: 750 tonnes in cargo; Length: 84 metres; Width: 13.8 metres). This is basically the only means of transportation to and from the islands for non-military personnel (mostly fishers and researchers). Its maiden voyage was on 10 February 2007, and it has been sailing regularly between Wenchang's Qinglan Port on southeastern Hainan Island and Woody Island in the Paracels roughly every 20 days. A normal trip takes 13 to 15 hours, navigating between dangerous reefs and banks, through a distance of 186 nautical miles (344 km).
Although all of the Paracels have been under China's control since the late 1970s, its strategic military position at the frontiers and its status as a disputed island with several claimants' military personnel nearby, have meant a low priority for the development of tourism. Nevertheless, since 2005, the provincial government of Hainan has instituted a small organising panel to investigate and discuss the possibility of opening up tourism to Woody Island and the rest of the Paracels.