Cruises around the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea are growing in popularity among Chinese holidaymakers, according to the official in charge of the disputed territory. Since the start of the year, 59 groups have set sail for the archipelago, Tian Xiangli, party chief of Sansha, said on the sidelines of the 19th national congress in Beijing. That represented a 20 per cent increase in both tour and passenger numbers from last year, he said, without giving an absolute figure for the latter. “The popularity of Xisha cruise tourism has increased day by day, and it has become a new hotspot for the tourism industry [of Hainan province],” Tian said in a written reply to the Post on Monday using the Chinese name for the Paracels. Sansha, which comes under the jurisdiction of Hainan, was established in 2012 on Woody Island, the largest of the Paracels, in a clear sign of China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, which is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, providing a strategic passage between northeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Beijing claims almost 90 per cent of the disputed waterway, to which several Southeast Asian nations and also Taiwan hold rival sovereignty claims. How Chinese tourists are changing the world Since the first cruise set sail for the Paracels from China in 2013, more than 39,000 tourists have since made similar trips. Most cruises run for four days and three nights, and include visits to the small islands of Yagong, Quanfu and Yinyu, diving stops, and excursions to local fishing villages. They start and finish in Sanya, a holiday resort city in Hainan and are open only to citizens of China’s mainland. Chinese tourists are everywhere, but why are foreign visitors shunning China? “The water there is really clean, something you could hardly see anywhere else in China,” a Sanya-based tour agent surnamed Liang, said. “I’m not sure how the market will be next year as such tours rely on government policy, but I have sold many more tours this year than last.” A South China Morning Post reporter joined one of the tours last year. The itinerary included a flag-raising ceremony and the showing of patriotic documentaries.