State-owned China COSCO Shipping Corp intends to launch cruises in South China Sea next month, with the first route to sail from Sanya city in country's southeast to disputed Paracel Islands. The Paracels, known as "Xisha Islands" in Chinese, are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
In April, China's largest shipping company signed a contract with China National Travel Service Group Corp and China Communications Construction Co Ltd to establish a cruise company to offer tourism services in the South China Sea.
In a statement sent to Reuters, China COSCO Shipping said developing tourism services in the South China Sea was part of China's "One Belt, One Road" strategy and the responsibility of its state enterprises.
China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to parts of the sea, through which passes about USD 5 trillion of trade a year.
A growing number of skirmishes have taken place amid rising regional tensions over China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, the latest last week when an Indonesian naval vessel fired on a Chinese fishing boat near the Natuna Islands.
The inaugural COSCO route to the Xisha Islands will be followed by the development of other routes in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, with a gradual expansion to international routes, in a bid to build China's first national cruise brand, the company said.
Countries competing to cement their rival claims have encouraged a growing civilian presence on disputed islands in the South China Sea. The first cruises from China to the Paracel islands were launched by Hainan Strait Shipping Co in 2013.
Beijing has said it wants to build Maldives-style resorts around the South China Sea.
In 2013, China began trial cruises on Coconut Princess from the southern island province of Hainan. By July 2015, over 10,000 vacationers took the cruise. A second ship was planned to operate, and Chinese officials intended to open more isles up for cruise tourist visits, including Woody Island, the location of the Chinese government seat for Paracels' administering.
The deployment of a Chinese oil rig close to the Paracels in 2014 sparked a standoff with anti-Chinese riots. All countries with rival claims encouraged a growing civilian presence on the disputed islands.