BEIJING A new Chinese cruise ship has embarked on its maiden voyage to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, state news agency Xinhua said on Friday, the latest effort by Beijing to bolster its claims in the strategic waterway.
The Changle Princess sailed from Sanya on the southern Chinese island province of Hainan on Thursday afternoon with 308 passengers on a four-day voyage, Xinhua said.
The new ship can carry 499 people and has 82 guest rooms with dining, entertainment, shopping, medical and postal services on board, it added.
Tourists will be able to visit the three islands in the Crescent group of the Paracels, Xinhua said.
China has previously said it plans to build hotels, villas and shops on the Crescent group and has also said it wants to build Maldives-style resorts around the South China Sea, though it is unclear if foreigners will ever be allowed to visit.
China claims 90 percent 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 $5 trillion of trade a year.
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.
The Paracels are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Lincoln Feast)