China on Sunday announced that a chain of islands in the South China Sea under dispute with other countries will soon be opened to cruises where tourists will get an opportunity walk around the uninhabited islands.
The state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Tan Li, vice-governor of the Hainan island on the South China Sea, as saying that tourists taking the cruise to Xisha islands - known as Paracel outside China - will eat and sleep on the ship and allowed sightseeing once the ship docks at the islands.
The islands, which China has controlled since a short war with South Vietnam in 1974, are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The announcement was made on Sunday at the 2013 Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference to an international audience.
The announcement is likely to increase diplomatic tension in the South China Sea region where China has been locked in a dispute over the ownership of these and other islands with a number of its neighbours.
The first cruise is likely to take place in the beginning of May coinciding with Labour Day holidays.
That the islands do not have much infrastructure for tourism has not deterred the Chinese government.
"There is only one hotel with 56 rooms in the 2.13-square-kilometer Yongxing Island, the largest island among the Xisha Islands group and home to the government offices of Sansha city. In addition, there is no fresh water and all supplies have to be transported from outside," the Xinhua report said.
A 47000 tonne cruise ship that can accommodate 1,965 passengers is ready to take the first tourists for what is likely to be a controversial cruise.
"The tour prices will be relatively high due to the high costs of tourism infrastructure construction," Huang Huaru, general manager of a tourism agency in Hainan told Xinhua.
Last year China created the Sansha city administration on Yongxing to oversee hundreds of thousands of square kilometers (miles) of water where it wants to assert and strengthen its control.