Paracel Islands - The tourists on the cruise were curious about their destination throughout the journey.

After 12 hours of calm sailing from Sanya, the southernmost city in China's Hainan province, about 100 tourists set foot on the mysterious Quanfu Dao, or All Wealth Island, for the flawless white sand and turquoise water.

The island, as big as three football fields, has little to offer other than being a natural photo studio. Swimming is forbidden.

The flag-waving tour guide, with his face well protected behind a bandana, gave a brief introduction of the island that is only one metre above sea level. Then the holy ceremony began.

All the tourists were gathered under a tall flag pole, and a veteran from the tourists was picked to act as the temporary flag bearer. The tour guide, with a loud speaker in his hand, gave a brief, passionate speech.

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"We will NOT let foreign invaders take any part part of our land," he said. "Now, please raise your hand, and swear with me!"

All the tourists raised their right fists up past their heads. Most of them also had a smile - and a smartphone in the left hand to record the moment.

"I love the motherland! I love Xisha!"

The red national flag slowly climbed to the top of the pole during the loud, 50-second-long national anthem.

Following suit is the obbligato group photo, when the guests participate in a loud Q&A session with the tour guide. 

"Is Xisha beautiful?"

"Beautiful!"

In the afternoon, tourists were taken to an even smaller island, Yagong Dao, or Male Duck Island. It is only half the size of the Quanfu, but with inhabitants. There is no sand on the island; instead shells and dead coral lie everywhere. The number of inhabitants varies from different sources: some say 30, some 80. The little handbook given to tourists says 40.

One of the caretakers told me all living here are from Tanmen and Wenchang, two major cities in eastern Hainan with long traditions of fishing. He said each resident receives a daily subsidy of about $6 if they stay on the island for half a year. After that, the money doubles.

The fishermen do not seem to care too much about interacting with the incoming tourists, unless the visitors buy fresh seafood or necklaces and bracelets made of shells. Weather could be a reason for their indifference as it is extremely humid here. Or they are simply bored.

Unlike the quiet Quanfu Dao, Yagong changes every day. A well-planned residential project is under way here, with a big poster showing what it looks like after the houses are built. The government website of Sansha, China's youngest city overseeing all the Paracel islands, promises to speed up development of a residential management building on Yagong.

Chinese tourists pose on an island [Bo Gu/Al Jazeera]

Yongxing Dao, where the Sansha government has been seated since 2012, is currently off limits to tourists.

The tour guide showed us a big stone tablet, on which it says "military forbidden zone" and "no landing without permission", both in English and Vietnamese. I asked the tour guide when this stone tablet was set up. He said he was not sure, but added: "This warns the Vietnamese … not to come here."

"Yes!" one of the tourists agreed. "If they dare come here, we'll kick them out!"

Seafood seems to be fairly priced. One lobster as big as my hand costs about $30, and a plate of roughly 20 shelled snails of different colours and shapes costs $15.

On the second night, when there are no sudden showers, tourists had the luxury of watching a concert and a dance performance. The entertainers would not have a chance to perform if the weather did not cooperate. 

After the dancers were finished, a 50-minute long documentary - called "1974 China-Vietnam Xisha Battle" - was screened. It is a film made by China Central TV on the 1974 battle between China and Vietnam.  Most Chinese people have hardly heard of the war..

The documentary, through archive footage, re-enactments and interviews with veterans, tells the story of a sudden Vietnamese naval attack in 1974, launched in an attempt to capture an island in the Paracels. Vietnam's invasion was thwarted and 18 Chinese soldiers died in the battle. 

According to the film, China's former chairman, Deng Xiaoping, gave the order to fight to retrieve other islands that had been under control of the Vietnamese. 

"We talk about this battle now to make the history of the young city of Sansha known," the documentary says at the end. "We also want to leave a record for the soldiers, alive or dead. When they were young, they shed their sweat and blood for this country."

Vendors sell their wares [Bo Gu/Al Jazeera] 

On the last afternoon, when tourists were finally allowed to have a quick swim at Yagong, some chose to lie on the vessel's chairs.

"I've been to many islands and seaside cities, including Palao. This trip is boring, there's nothing to do," said one elderly lady from Anhui province. "This cruise is more of a political tour rather than for leisure."

The four-day cruise is obviously more fun to some younger tourists who grew up reading "our beautiful Xisha Islands" in their school textbooks.

A young girl from Hubei province said she always had a special attachment for the Paracels.

"This is the first time I see the ocean for real. I feel very proud, especially after watching the documentary, learning how our soldiers fought fearlessly to gain the sovereignty of our country."

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Source: Al Jazeera