BEIJING, Sept 2 China is opening a new route for cruise ships to sail to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, state media reported on Tuesday, in a move that is likely to irritate Vietnam.
The Coconut Princess embarked on Tuesday on its maiden voyage to the islands from Sanya, a city popular with tourists in the southern island province of Hainan.
Ties between the two Communist neighbours have been strained this year by a dispute over a Chinese oil rig dispatched to disputed waters that triggered a wave of anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.
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.
On four-day cruises, tourists will visit three of the islets, Xinhua said, where they can "play beach volleyball, dive, fish and take wedding photos".
China began cruises on a trial basis from Haikou, also located in Hainan, in April 2013, but the shorter route from Sanya will now take over, Xinhua reported.
China said last month it planned to build lighthouses on five islets in the sea, including two in the Paracel archipelago. (Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Alison Williams)