Paracel Islands © Dreamstime
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Are you a Chinese patriot who enjoys cruises and has never engaged in subversion or “spread reactionary thoughts”?

If so, your holiday options are expanding, with China’s largest state-owned shipping company planning to launch a second cruise route to the disputed Paracel islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

From tourism and fishing to diplomatic lobbying and island building, Beijing has been accelerating its efforts to support its hotly contested claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

Its increasingly assertive approach has prompted pushback from other claimants, with Vietnam deepening its relationship with the US, while the Philippines has taken China to a UN arbitration court in The Hague.

Beijing has stepped up its activities around the South China Sea ahead of an expected verdict in the Philippines’ case within the next few weeks.

China has refused to recognise the right of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to hear the case. But in recent days, a senior Hong Kong lawyer who is a member of one of the Chinese government’s top advisory bodies has made a submission to the court questioning its jurisdiction.

A Chinese company based on the island of Hainan first launched cruises to the Paracel islands in 2013. China Cosco, the nation’s largest shipping company, said it is planning to add its own service from next month on a ship called the Dream of the South China Sea.

“It is practical to stimulate the local economy through development of tourism, logistics and infrastructure facilities,” Xu Lirong, Cosco chairman, was quoted as saying by the China Daily, a state-owned newspaper.

While cruise holidays are rapidly becoming more popular with China’s fast-growing middle class, the Paracel route is targeted at patriots more than lovers of luxury on the high seas.

The existing boat is basic and small, with room for only 400 guests, while the trips to three tiny Chinese controlled islets offer few extra activities beyond “playing volleyball, catching crabs and flying a kite”.

Tourists, who must all be mainland Chinese citizens with no history of subversive activities, are encouraged to take part in a flag-raising ceremony, where they pledge their love for the motherland and the Xisha islands, as the Paracels are known in Chinese.

Prices for the trip range from a few hundred dollars for a bunk bed in a dormitory to a few thousand for the best private cabin.

Cosco, which will operate its service in conjunction with China National Travel Service, a state-owned travel agent, has yet to release details about the schedule or pricing.

China National Travel Service said in a statement that by launching the service it was “taking an important measure” to fulfil its responsibility as a state-owned company.

Additional reporting by Gloria Cheung

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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