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BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - China's tropical southern island of Hainan, often touted as the country's answer to Hawaii, faces an image problem in becoming a true global resort due to poor service standards and a festering territorial dispute.
Late last year, the government unveiled plans to turn Hainan, once a lonely place of exile, into a top international tourist destination by 2020, hoping to lure visitors with its long, sandy beaches, crystal clear seas and year-round sunshine.
But it faces an uphill struggle, admitted Hainan's provincial governor, Luo Baoming, due to persistent problems with tourists being ripped-off, sold fake goods or otherwise encountering lamentable service standards.
"Frankly speaking, receiving complaints like this makes you both pained and angry," Luo told a news conference in Beijing.
"It blackens the name of tourism in Hainan," he added. "If we can't solve this issue, or can't tackle it effectively enough, we won't be able to reach even the lowest threshold for becoming an international tourist island."
Such complaints in China's tourist industry are not new, and Chinese newspapers regularly feature horror stories of tour groups dumped by the sides of roads by unscrupulous tour operators or forced to buy expensive knick-knacks.
A glance at some reader comments on official news agency Xinhua's website (www.xinhuanet.com) on Hainan's plans showed just what a problem the government has to deal with.
"Sure, Hainan has great natural conditions, but the tourist market is a mess, there is a serious problem with tourists being cheated, and the government has a poor reputation at managing things," wrote one reader called "Clumsy Stone."
Hainan already attracts few foreign visitors, hampered by lack of flights and limited flexibility on landing visas. Of Hainan's almost 20 million visitors in 2008, just 730,000 were foreigners, mostly Russians and South Koreans.
Moreover, Hainan's plans risk inflaming regional tensions over a group of atolls in the South China Sea, the Spratly and Paracel islands, all or parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
The Hainan tourism policy document mentions the Paracels and other "uninhabited islands," but provincial Communist Party chief Wei Liucheng sought to downplay its significance.
"We are currently looking at concrete ways of developing tourism on the Paracels along with related departments, and will announce details when the time is right," Wei told reporters.
China's claims, the broadest, cover all of the Spratly and Paracel islands and most of the South China Sea.
The sea's biggest military skirmishes occurred in 1974, when China attacked and captured the western Paracels from Vietnam, and in 1988, when China and Vietnam fought a brief naval battle near the Spratly reefs in which more than 70 Vietnamese sailors were killed.
Vietnam has already complained about China trying to promote tourism in the Paracels.
"The action above by the Chinese side is a serious violation of Vietnam's sovereignty and ... creates tension and further complicates the situation," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said earlier this week. "Vietnam requires that the Chinese side bring to an end these actions."
China says its sovereignty over all the islands is indisputable.
Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Hanoi; Editing by Alex Richardson