Authors: By JOE McDONALD
BEIJING (AP) -- A Chinese real estate tycoon defended his plan Friday to buy a tract of wilderness in Iceland for a resort development that has stirred unease there about whether Beijing intends to use the project to gain a strategic foothold.
Huang Nubo, chairman of Zhong Kun Group, said he wants to build a wilderness tourism destination that preserves the environment and Icelandic culture. He rejected suggestions by critics in Iceland that the project might be a covert effort by the Chinese government to establish itself in the North Atlantic nation.
"This is all private investment," Huang said at a news conference at his company's headquarters tower.
Iceland's prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, said this week the country welcomes the investment. The interior minister, Ogmundur Jonasson, said the government still was reviewing environmental and other aspects of the proposed project.
Iceland, a nation of 320,000 people, was considered a strategically important location between Europe and the United States in the Cold War.
The Icelandic public initially favored the investment, which comes as Iceland struggles to recover from a banking crisis that wrecked its economy. But sentiment has turned against it as critics questioned whether it really was a tourism project.
Jon Thorisson, an Icelandic architect who has campaigned in the past against foreign ownership of Icelandic resources, complained that the sale involves 0.3 percent of the small island's land.
"What will it mean for our country if foreign parties come in and buy large chunks of land?" he said in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital. "Will large-scale ownership allow them to exert political influence?"
Huang has agreed to pay private owners 1 billion Icelandic kronor ($8.8 million) for the remote 300 square kilometer (120 square mile) tract in the island's northeast. The government also owns a portion of the land, known as Grimsstadir.
Huang, who climbs mountains in his spare time and says he has been to the North and South Poles, said plans call for making the site part of a chain of exclusive wilderness resorts in China, the United States and elsewhere.
"Nature there is very beautiful," Huang said.
He showed reporters photos of the grassy, treeless site with snow-blanketed hills in the distance and of himself, smiling broadly, meeting Icelandic officials and visiting rural farmhouses during a visit there.
Huang also rejected suggestions his project was part of a possible Chinese government effort to gain access to a deep-water harbor nearby.
"If it involved politics or any other background (than tourism), I wouldn't go there," he said.
Huang said he was not aware of the controversy in Iceland until he returned to Beijing after a trip to Tibet this week.
"I found the whole world was looking for me," he said.