Hainan may be China’s smallest province, but it punches well above its weight in appeal. Bounded by pristine palm-fringed beaches, the region also features an interior defined by mountains blanketed with lush tropical forests.
While much of China must contend each year with persistent wintry weather – gray skies, snow, bitter cold – Hainan is located at roughly the same latitude as Hawaii (lending the island its nickname of “China’s Hawaii”). At worst, February temperatures are known to dip to between 16 and 20 degrees Celsius on “Coconut Island,” renowned for its plethora of trees bearing the tropical fruit. (Caveat: The island is battered by the occasional typhoon.)
Tropical fruits are something of a defining characteristic for Hainan. Bananas, lychees, papayas and pineapples are found dangling from trees throughout the island. And local culinary highlights include a smorgasbord of seafood and other dishes, including hele crab, dongshan mutton, jiaji duck and wenchang chicken.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The island’s famous Guanyin statue (akin to a Statue of Liberty in the South China Sea) and its gorgeous beaches of Yalong Bay are major draws, as are the numerous traditional festivals held throughout the year along its balmy shores.
But it wasn’t always this way for Hainan. In the distant past, Chinese viewed the island as a far-flung hell reserved for banished officials. But that was 2000 years ago, and things have since taken a turn for the better. Indeed , Hainan today earns roughly 80 percent of its income from tourism.
While there are in fact eight bustling cities and ten counties in Hainan, the majority of Chinese associate the province with the resort-rich southern coast of Hainan Island, which accounts for 97 percent of the province’s landmass. In all, Hainan comprises 200 islands scattered among three archipelagos off China’s southern coast – including disputed claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
At the far southern edge of the massive Chinese mainland, Hainan was the largest of Deng Xiaoping’s special economic zones from the late 1980s. The freewheeling financial atmosphere that shaped the island would give rise to a vacation hotspot that endures to this day for Chinese sun lovers. While the provincial capital city of Haikou lies on the northern coast of Hainan Island, it is the southern resort city of Sanya that has put Hainan on the map.
Most recently, the island’s history has come full circle, with officials and developers looking to turn the 12,700-square-mile island into a major international resort center by 2020. This month Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the island, fraternizing with fishermen, swinging by a rose farm and stopping at a major cruise terminal.
“Accelerating the development of Hainan as an international tourism island is a key decision made by central authorities and also offers the biggest opportunity and the biggest comparative advantage for Hainan,” Xi told Xinhua.
That’s not all. Other hopes for the island include turning it into a pilot region to experiment with different tourism models (part of China’s tourism industry reform), transforming the island into a major base for ecological development and agricultural production, cultivating Hainan as a platform for international economic and cultural exchange, and even establishing the island as a service center.
But the linchpin is tourism, as evidenced by vigorous development efforts currently underway. In December 2009, China’s State Council released a report on the state of tourism, according to which tourism expenditure in Hainan would grow 12.6 percent on average every year from 2011 to 2021, with visitor spending expected to hit RMB 110.8 billion by 2012.
In preparation for all those visitors, the high-speed Hainan Eastern Ring Rail line was opened at the end of 2010, allowing travelers to zip from Haikou in the north to Sanya in the south in a mere 1.5 hours. In April 2011, the government went a step further, implementing a tax-free policy for all tourists departing the island by air for any goods purchased in special tax-free stores.
So far, the move has paid off. As of October 2012, two tax-free shops in Sanya and Haikou had sold RMB 2.67 billion worth of tax-free goods, with tourism numbers spiking 16 percent to reach 30 million in 2011. Taking this a step further, the world’s largest duty-free shopping center, the Haitang Bay International Shopping Center, is currently being built in Sanya. This massive complex of consumerism is slated to open in 2014.
But really, all of this is just the nuts and bolts of an infrastructure being built for a place that can sell itself without much toil. Xi summed it up best: “Green mountains, clear water and blue sky are Hainan’s biggest strength.”