A group of Chinese tourists wearing T-shirts depicting the disputed South China Sea were stopped by Vietnamese police upon arrival at Cam Ranh airport on Sunday evening and asked to remove them.
The tourists had travelled from Shaanxi Province to Nha Trang, a city on the southern central coast of Vietnam, for a five-day stay according to Vietnamese newspaper Labor Daily.
Airport officials stopped the group, who removed their coats as they passed through security, revealing the controversial T-shirts featuring the nine-dash line. The tourists were then instructed to remove the shirts before they could leave the airport.
The nine-dash line is central to the South China Sea dispute. It runs for 2,000 km from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometres of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Beijing has long insisted on its dominance in this sensitive stretch of water, where artificial islands have been built and airstrips installed.
The group allegedly maintained their innocence, saying that they had bought the garments at a market at home and that they were unaware of its political message.
The long-contested territory is a particularly delicate issue in Vietnam, which has a history of conflict with its Chinese neighbour.
This uneasy relationship is amplified by Vietnam’s reliance on Chinese tourists visiting the country. According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, more than four million Chinese people visited the country last year, accounting for 31 per cent of all tourists.
Tran Viet Trung, director of Khanh Hoa’s tourism department, was reported to say that the case will be investigated and further action taken if necessary.
The pictures fuelled anger online, where some Vietnamese commentators suggested that the visitors should be deported and banned from returning to the country.