China sent a cruise ship on its first journey to the contested Paracel Islands in South China Sea, according to reports Friday. The move comes amid heightened territorial dispute and China’s growing aggression in the region.

The Changle Princess ship carrying 308 passengers sailed from Sanya city in the country’s southeast Thursday on a four-day voyage. The tourists will be taken to three islands in the Crescent group of the Paracels. The ship reportedly boasts of 82 guest rooms with dining, entertainment, shopping, medical and postal services and has the capacity to carry 499 people.

Last June, Beijing announced plans to start cruises to South China Sea and develop Maldives-style resorts around the disputed region. The country reportedly wants to make islands in the Paracel archipelago a tourist hub, and has already constructed sports facilities on its artificial islands of Spratly archipelago, which is also a debated area. China also reportedly plans to turn the islands and reefs into destinations for weddings. The Paracel Islands are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Beijing’s latest move to further its claim on the South China Sea comes amid territorial tensions in the region, where about $5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes every year. China has laid claims to almost all of the South China Sea and built artificial islands, runways and ports, claiming that the constructions will only add to the safety of the region. However, other claimants of the region — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan — have raised opposition to Chinese aggression.

On Thursday, Wang Guoqing, a spokesman for the fifth session of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said China gives importance to freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea more than any other country.

Wang also asserted that the South China Sea islands are an integral part of China and it is "perfectly normal" for the country to build facilities, including military ones, on its territory.

"We have set up cooperation mechanisms with many other countries to ensure safe navigation," he said.

Wang’s comments came after the U.S. sent its aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea last month.