China has allowed the first group of tourists to visit its controversial man-made island in the disputed South China Sea. A Hainan Airlines plane carrying civilian visitors touched down on Fiery Cross Reef on Friday, Sina News reported.

The tourists are all families of soldiers who are stationed on the island, the report said.

Family unions on Fiery Cross Reef. Photo: Sina.

Pictures posted on the news portal showed happy family reunions on the landing field, with uniformed Chinese soldiers holding their wives and young kids.

Last week, Beijing conducted test flights with empty civilian planes around the artificial territory, prompting protests from Vietnam. The island is part of the Spratly chain, where several nations have competing claims including China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei.

Tourist land on Fiery Cross Reef. Photo: Sina.

In response to Hanoi’s criticism, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the test flights were conducted “within China’s territory” and therefore legal.

The Fiery Cross Reef. Photo: Sina.

The construction of the man-made island and other land reclamation work in the South China Sea has drawn concerns that Beijing is becoming increasingly assertive towards its neighbours regarding territorial disputes. In October, the US sent a warship to the area on a freedom of navigation mission, which Beijing said was a “serious provocation.”

Vivienne Zeng

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.