Has the sun set on paradise island?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 June, 2004, 12:00am

All is not well in the mainland's tropical paradise of Hainan.

Traditionally a prime holiday destination, the island has used its beautiful sandy beaches to anchor an economy built on tourism.

But with other mainland provinces and Southeast Asian holiday destinations determined to capture a bigger share of the tourism market, Hainan's appeal has faded.

The problems were evident during the recent Labour Day holiday. While the number of tourists travelling on the mainland surged, arrivals in Hainan plunged.

More than 104 million domestic tourists made trips during the May 1-7 holiday, up nearly 20 per cent on the previous record set in 2002. They spent nearly 40 billion yuan, 17 per cent more than during the holiday in 2002. The Sars outbreak in 2003 ruled last year out of the comparison.

Hainan, however, registered a dramatic fall in visitors during the period. The hotel occupancy rate during the week in Haikou and Sanya, the province's two biggest cities, was less than 60 per cent. That put it near the bottom of the mainland's top 59 domestic tourism destinations, according to the China National Tourism Administration.

Many Hainan tourist attractions were almost deserted during the holiday, with the most popular scenic spot, Tianyahaijiao, attracting only 6,400 visitors on May 7. The site usually attracts about 3,000 more people a day during a holiday.

By comparison, more than 1.6 million people visited Shanghai during the first three days of the holiday week. The inland province of Jiangxi saw a record 4.1 million tourists for the week.

Hainan saw fewer than 30,000 tourists on May 1, usually one of the busiest days for travel. Even if that arrival rate had been sustained for the entire holiday, it would still have meant the island seeing only about 200,000 visitors.

The relatively warm spring weather, and rising air fares, caused people to look elsewhere, analysts said.

The poor numbers present a challenge for the local government's goal of making tourism, along with industry, a key pillar of economic development.

Some of the island's provincial leaders have pushed for more industrialisation and less tourism. They say tourism is not as profitable as other industries, such as manufacturing, and brings in less tax revenue.

Chi Fulin, 53, director of the China (Hainan) Institute of Reform and Development, warned local leaders against being lured by the promise of quick money. 'Unlike manufacturing industries, it would be a long process to get a large amount of tax revenue out of tourism,' he said.

'[Developing tourism] needs a long-term strategy which must include considering how to help local people raise their incomes,' he said.

In 2000, combined revenues in tourism and related industries reached 26 billion yuan, over half of its gross domestic product of 51.8 billion yuan.

A tourism-based economy is in line with the goal of sustainable development laid out by President Hu Jintao during a visit to the island this year. Mr Hu also stressed the importance of preserving the island's environment.

Professor Chi said Hainan's leaders could make better use of tourism resources. He suggested the island be divided into five areas, with each focusing on a different aspect of tourism.

The central government should step in to stop cities and counties from developing tourism independently, as this could lead to irreversible damage to the environment.

He also called for more outside investment. 'Let the market rule. Allow big overseas enterprises, including those from Hong Kong, to become main developers through public bidding,' Professor Chi said.

'We must invite world-renowned tourist agencies to do business here.'

Hainan's governor, Wei Liucheng , promised last week that tourism would continue to be developed.

Despite that endorsement, challenges remain. The island needs not only to boost the number of arrivals, but also shift the focus from sightseers to holidaymakers who are willing to stay longer and spend more, Professor Chi said.

Despite the island's improving security, it was still not good enough if authorities hoped to attract more holidaymakers, an experienced Hainan observer told the 21st Century Business Herald last month.

'It would be meaningless to talk about ... a sightseeing [economy] without a security guarantee,' said Li Maosheng, a chief editor at China Social Publishing House.

Seizing the opportunity to develop tourism would not be an easy task, Professor Chi warned.

'We may only have three to five years, otherwise, we will fail to accomplish the goal set by President Hu' of developing Hainan in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way, he said. 'To do this, the scheme will have to be implemented in the next two to three years.'