Beijing’s largest shipping company is set to launch cruise travels in the disputed South China Sea in an effort to develop tourism in the region.
The chairman of China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (COSCO), Xu Lirong said the shipping line will begin the cruise trips next month, the China Daily newspaper reported on Tuesday.
The first rout will link Sanya in the southern Chinese province of Hainan with Yongle, part of the Xisha Islands, known internationally as Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, according to the report.
Xu said the cruise travels would be “practical to stimulate the local economy through development of tourism, logistics and infrastructure facilities.”
COSCO signed a contract in April with China National Travel Service (HK) Group Corp and China Communications Construction Co Ltd to jointly establish a cruise company aimed at offering tourism services in the South China Sea.
The cruise company will provide tourism services to major islands in Paracels chain, according to the report.
COSCO is not the first company to offer trips to the Paracels. Hainan Strait Shipping Co Ltd has also been operating cruise services between Sanya and the Paracels for more than two years.
Beijing launched cruises to the South China Sea on a trial basis in 2013. Around 16,000 tourists paid visits to the Xisha Islands last year.
The development came after Beijing decided to turn an area around Woody Island in the Paracels chain into a “major tourist attraction comparable to the Maldives.”
Senior Hainan official Xiao Jie said in May that tourists will be able to go on sea plane, island weddings, fishing and diving trips. He said the cruises had been very popular, with tickets hard to come by.
China claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The sea has become a source of tension between China, the US, and some other regional countries, who are seeking control of trade routes and mineral deposits there.
The US accuses China of attempting to take advantage of the situation and gradually asserting control over the region.
China, however, rejects the allegations and says the US is interfering in regional affairs, deliberately stirring tensions in the South China Sea.