Visitors get in the swing
Among Sanya's rich collection of leisure activities, golf may well be the resort haven's crown jewel. More than a dozen premier golf courses are situated within 90 minutes of the city.
Most guests tend to be middle-aged men from the north of the mainland who come during the winter. About 10 per cent of the annual 150,000 games are played by visitors from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, according to Raymond Hau, general manager of the Sun Valley Sanya Golf Resort.
Those numbers are set to grow as Sanya is 'the most active place in Asia and perhaps the world in terms of golf-course development over the next 20 years', says Spencer Robinson, managing editor of Asian Golf Monthly, part of the Asia-Pacific Golf Group.
For those who love things on a grand scale, Sanya's golf does not disappoint. The Sun Valley course boasts a single hole that measures 828 yards, which is billed by Hau as China's only par-6 hole.
Opportunities for group play abound, with two major events each month for local golfers and one for the tourism industry, accommodating 40 to 50 players each month, according to Shane Templeton, Yalong Bay Golf Club's course superintendent.
The courses are in magnificent condition. 'When Westerners come out, their jaws drop because they truly are of a world-class standard,' Robinson says. Of course, all that quality - immaculate greens, vast clubhouses, varied amenities - isn't free. Eighteen holes of golf, including a cart and caddie, typically cost upwards of 600 yuan (HK$735).
The local culture is a boon and a drawback in Sanya's effort to woo guests from Hong Kong and overseas. Golf culture varies greatly between regions, and mainland players are notoriously loath to trust their playing partners.
Distrust can lead players to play a ball, even when it lands in unorthodox places, as they would prefer to simply play on rather than engage in a duel over how and whether to take a hazard penalty. 'The rule [that mainland players prefer] is that you can't touch the ball wherever it may lie, even if it's on the cart path,' Templeton says. Even so, Sanya's cultural and geographical proximity to Hong Kong is an asset. 'Proximity, language and food are the big draws for Hong Kong guests,' Robinson says.
For the golf industry in Sanya and the mainland to take the next step in its development, it may need to learn a lesson from the West.
'Make it more of a mainstream sport,' Robinson says. 'It has an elitist image that it desperately needs to get rid of if it is going to grow [to its potential].'