Edition: English | 中文简体 | 中文繁体 Монгол
Homepage > Travel Video

Hawaii in the South China Sea


08-28-2016 04:10 BJT

While Pingtan prepares to boost visitor numbers, China's 1st International Tourism Island, Hainan, remains a perennial favorite. Each year, huge numbers of tourists from across the country and beyond come to soak up the sunshine, and enjoy the delights of China's answer to Hawaii.

This is Sanya, the jewel in the crown of China’s tropical island paradise, Hainan. Every year, tens of millions of visitors come to this island, but most of them are Chinese, and for the majority of foreigners, Hainan and Sanya remain something of a mystery. Local tourism authorities hope all that, is about to change.

Stunning coastlines, luxury resorts, and a tropical climate: This is Hainan, China’s southernmost province and a playground for the rich and rising middle class. A staggering 50 million tourists come here every year. But there’s trouble in paradise. Foreign faces are few and far between, at a time when China’s government is banking on a wave of inbound tourism dollars, as one solution for making the country’s economy less reliant on manufacturing.

Joey: Tell us in your own words, why people should come to Sanya for a holiday.

Yue Jin, Vice Mayor of Sanya: Sanya is situated at latitude 18 degrees north, the same latitude as Hawaii. Some years ago, the governor of Hawaii visited. He said Sanya reminded him so much of Hawaii, but it was even better!

"China is a very, very strong market and if you think about it, the national GDP growth is 7 to 8 percent, so the middle class also grows therefore at about 7 to 8 percent so that’s about 6 or 7 or 8 million people. So you have basically the population of a smaller Europe country like my own, Austria: I think that’s a very big number to drive tourism in this area. If there is enough flight seats available, if there is enough transportation opportunities to get here, if there is enough, international tourism will also start to come here," said Andreas Trauttmansdorff, general manager of St. Regis Hotel, Sanya.

But the plain and simple truth is, those droves of overseas visitors, haven’t landed yet.
In 2015, international tourist numbers in China fell by 1.4 percent, to 26 million. And while Hainan’s domestic tourism has more than doubled in the past decade, in the same period, foreign visitor numbers have fallen, from 1 million per year, to 650,000. But in Hainan’s famed beach city, Sanya, there’s a new push to help inbound tourism take off.

The better part of the more than 15 million visitors that come to Sanya every year, come through this local airport, which between 2014 and 2015, went from the 19th busiest to the 18th busiest, in all of China. Local authorities are pumping millions into subsidizing airlines in the hopes of opening more international routes, which in turn they hope will encourage more international tourism.

It’s just one of many steps, being taken.

"Sanya was the pilot city for the new tax refund policy for purchases by overseas tourists, in 2011. Tourists, mainly from Russia, tend to buy textile products," said Chen Yuguang, director of customs, Sanya Airport.

All signs point towards the efforts being made to attract more international visitors. Nationals from 26 countries can now get a visa on arrival, but only if they are attached to an organized tour group. The question is, are these changes enough to make Hainan really the Hawaii of the South China Sea?

"I think it is achievable, because all around in Asia is rich people and they want to spend their money. Besides gambling in Macao and shopping in Hong Kong, this is another relaxing place," said HK tourist.

But this expat says flying here from outside of Asia often means an overnight stopover: And that’s keeping foreigners away.

"I cannot say it’s very convenient, really. Because people have to stay overnight somewhere. There are some routes to Russia, and Sanya-Shanghai- Moscow, it’s also not convenient," said Yulia Sirkina, Russian-born Hainan resident.

But local authorities say tourism is being put on the fast track by another mode of transport: High speed rail.

"The advantage of this station is that it’s near Fenghuang Airport, so the high-speed train, road and air transport are integrated," said Cai Liuju, director of Sanya High Speed Bureau.

Across the nation over the past few decades, China has built tens of thousands of kilometres of high speed rail. But the line in Hainan is unique.

We’re currently travelling on the world’s first high-speed, loop rail network, almost 650km of track that circles the island of Hainan.

For just over 30 US dollars, tourists like these French friends, can loop Hainan – an area roughly the size of Belgium - in just five hours.

"We go to the beaches during the day. And at night, to the nightclubs. I like both. They're not bad here," said French tourist.

The train is capable of speeds of up to 250km per hour, and it’s proving a big hit with the throng of domestic tourists, an annual wave of visitors roughly equivalent to double the entire population of Australia. But only about 1.4 percent of those coming here every year, are from overseas.

Billions have been spent modernizing customs and quarantines facilities in the province, but there aren’t many passports from far off places being presented here. In reality, the plan to make Hainan a world class tourism destination, launched by China in 2009, has yet to get significant numbers of foreign feet on the ground. Local officials believe the solution may lie in marketing the province better abroad.

Joey: What is Hainan doing to attract more international tourists?

Yue Jin: The customs clearance procedures in Sanya are simple and convenient, and Sanya has a visa-free policy for 26 countries, which makes it easier for tourists to come. In the next few years the Sanya government will focus on cruises to the neighbouring countries, in line with the Belt and Road initiative.

But it’s not all smooth sailing.

Sanya is the midway stop on the South China Sea pleasure cruise route between Hong Kong and Vietnam. And this ship behind me is just arriving from the SAR. But in terms of international tourism, recently the business has entered uncertain waters.

Cruise tourism is seen as a big opportunity to boost international visitors. But ship arrival numbers sank from more than 200 in 2014, to just 64 in 2015: And many ships that did dock, were below capacity.

Joey: First time to China, first time to Sanya?

Pradeep Karthikeyan: Yes, we are from India, we are from Chennai.

Joey: What made you decide to take this particular cruise?

Pradeep Karthikeyan: I told the agent, he was offering us the Singapore-Malaysia cruise. We thought this would be exotic. You know, we’d be going to places like we’ve never gone before without knowing the language. So I thought it would be an exotic destination. Surprisingly I think we are the only Indian couple on the entire cruise.

Joey: Have you seen many other foreigners?

Pradeep Karthikeyan: No, no, no. Only Asians, we’ve seen only Asians.

Deterred, so industry insiders believe, by concerns over tensions in the South China Sea, EU and US passenger numbers dropped by 50 percent in 2015. But on the back of a marketing push, the industry is setting a course for recovery, and it’s hoped more than 100 passenger ships will dock in Hainan this year. A straw poll of recent arrivals suggests the industry is coming about, and no longer taking on water.

"We have a capacity of 2,300 passengers, and at this moment we have all Chinese guests. They love to eat different styles. We have the suggestion about the food, that we have food Asian style and food Italian style," said Benedetto Minuto, director of Costa Victoria Hotel.

But on the island itself, it’s mostly about food, local style. Super-sized on the influx of the tourism boom, Hainan’s restaurant and catering industry turned over about 3.5 billion US dollars in 2015, an almost 20 percent increase in business compared with the previous year. In this kitchen, the heat is well and truly on, to satisfy the culinary curiosity of Hainan’s hungry visitors.

Food is central to the Chinese tourist experience, and this restaurant in Nanshan serves 4,000 people a day with unique local dishes and cuisine. Many of them choose to take cooking classes, so they can take their little taste of Hainan, back home.

Out of the frying pan, and into the fire: Choose the wrong eatery in Hainan, and the meal can go from pricey, to criminally expensive, courtesy of a number of restaurant scams. But with frustration boiling over on Chinese social media, authorities have vowed to serve up harsher penalties. In Hainan, it’s last supper time, for shysters.

Hainan has become the beach destination in China, and the number of domestic tourists coming here every year, continues to rise. But so does the price of everything, in particular, accommodation. As a result, even the relative handful of international tourists visiting here, are in danger of slipping through Hainan’s fingers.

In some ways, Hainan has become a victim of its own success, making it hard for it to compete with cheaper tourism destinations in South East Asia. During peak periods, a week in a hotel room here can cost upwards of 8,000 US dollars, just shy of the average yearly wage in China. Even a week of basic accommodation costs roughly double the average monthly wage in Beijing. The domestic tourists keep coming, but what do they think of the price?

Hainan has more to offer beyond its beaches. Untamed and in places still untouched, this wild and wonderful wilderness is a biodiversity hotspot, and covers almost 70 percent of the province. It’s a big drawcard for tourism, both domestic and international, yet that poses an ever bigger challenge.

This is China’s largest mangrove forest. Located just outside of Haikou, it’s made up of more than 3,000 hectares of sprawling wetlands and it’s a world renowned biological hotspot. It’s been protected since the early 1980s: it’s called, the Red Forest. But experts like Shen Wei say there’s a delicate balance to be maintained here, between ecology, and the tourism economy that keeps developers at bay.

Joey: Shang Wei, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Shang Wei: I am Shen Wei. I work for the Hainan Dongzhaigang National Nature Reserve.

Joey: Shen Wei, tell us a little bit about how you maintain the balance between the tourism industry that keeps this mangrove forest protected and the environmental impact that comes with having tens of millions of tourists come here every year.

Shang Wei: Yes, there’s conflict between protection and development. The garbage and noise brought by tourists do have some negative effects. But opening part of the reserve to the public will be good for the local farmers. And also the revenues from tourism can contribute to the protection effort.

Domestic tourist numbers in Hainan continue to jump by double digits, every year. But despite local tourism authorities pulling out all the tricks, so far, they seem to have been unable to convey to foreigners exactly what it is about the province that delights Chinese tourists, and keeps them coming back for more. Nationally, foreign tourist numbers have been going incrementally backwards, but probably not for long. In the future, it’s possible foreign visitors will be singing China’s praises, with the United Nations' World Tourism Organization estimating the country will be the biggest tourism destination on the planet, by 2020.

Hainan’s ambition to snap up a greater share of the international tourism market is far from being realized. But with its ever growing popularity with domestic tourists it’s unlikely this island will ever be a deserted one.

Follow us on

  • Please scan the QR Code to follow us on Instagram

  • Please scan the QR Code to follow us on Wechat