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It's probably not the best idea to try to get to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. But every time I see a photo, I can't help but think how picturesque and pristine the islands seem:

AP photo of Senkaku Islands

(The AP via the Guardian)

Were these islands ever a tourist destination? Is it totally unrealistic to try to reach these islands now?

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    Yes, it is totally unrealistic. It is constantly patrolled by the Japanese and Chinese coastguard, and the last thing they want is a tourist wandering in and accidentally starting a war. – Pitarou Jan 7 '14 at 2:03
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Was it ever a tourist destination? Not known for it, no.

Generally tourism requires some infrastructure and base population to support it. The islands consist of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks.

This is not to say that people haven't lived there or tried to occupy in the past. They've been used at various stages as:

  • fishing islands
  • a fish processing plant was built for over 200 workers (circa 1900)
  • this business failed and the islands have been uninhabited since
  • US government occupation in 1945, although after handing to the Japanese government, surveying and developing has been prohibited.
  • US military has used one of the islands as a practice bombing range

However, tourism has not occurred on the islands, at least not organised tourism as we know it today.

(Source)

However, as for reaching it, this is possible, although potentially foolhardy and dangerous in the current political climate. A flotilla of fishing vessels sailed there last year during one of the rows in the ongoing dispute, as have some activists, so in theory you could join them or pay a boat to take you there. I think most places would advise against it in the current world political climate, however.

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    Amazing answer. Couldn't ask for any more info. – samthebrand Dec 19 '13 at 14:37
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    "Tourists" to Tiaoyu/Senkaku typically fly a PRC, ROC or Japanese flag and are frequently arrested :-) It is definitely possible to go there and there will be people who will fund you (as long as you carry the flag for them), but the consequences are definitely not in any way desirable. – xuq01 Mar 25 '17 at 14:08
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Rather than going to Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, you could go to Dokdo. It's called the Liancourt Rocks by the west, and Takeshima by Japan. It's an island subject to a dispute between Japan and South Korea (as opposed to China), and is actively promoted as a tourist destination. It's currently controlled by South Korea. Up to 400 people can visit the island per day, according to "Korea Travel Guide" by the Korea Tourism Organization.

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