Hainan - the final frontier

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 June, 2004, 12:00am

Driving the length of Hainan, from Haikou in the north to Sanya in the south, is an inspirational experience. The smokestacks of the Pearl River Delta are far away. The skies are brilliant blue one moment, pitch-black the next, as a thunderstorm such as we never see in Hong Kong erupts. The highway shoots through farmland that could be the backdrop for a Qing dynasty-era movie. The south coast beaches rival Southeast Asia's.

What is wrong with this picture?

The answer is nothing, because there are not any people in it yet. Hainan does not bear the population pressure of the rest of China. Its 7.1 million inhabitants allow for a population density per square kilometre of less than 200. I share my block of flats with more people.

When they do step into the picture, it gets a bit fuzzier. That is because, unlike the buffaloes providing distance markers on the roads to Hainan's five-star resorts, the locals have aspirations. When they shout gong xi fa cai! to each other once a year, they mean it. Fishing and farming are not going to do. Casinos and stock markets are, sadly, no longer options. So the question is whether tourism or industry can bring them their due.

The drive south is inspiring because it provides such a convincing case for policymakers to give preference to the former. This could be a first for China, and it is not a tough choice. No other province has such a natural competitive advantage, and none can already claim tourism accounts for more than half its gross domestic product. There is also a role model in the region: tourism has made Phuket Thailand's richest province.

There may have been a few fluttering hearts around the island recently, compounded by a report in this newspaper, over disappointing numbers during the May 1 'golden week' holidays. But this belies the fact that tourism here is not tied to a week of madness on planes, trains and automobiles. The weather is fine all year, so what really counts is the growth of a Chinese middle class that travels at its convenience, rather than only when factories are shut.

This is happening. Chinese New Year is still peak season for tour groups: it is cold in the rest of the country, and more big-spending young people seem to like going to the 'end of the earth' to avoid their in-laws. This year, planes flying into Hainan were 90 per cent full over the period, national tourism officials claim. Yet the common message I got from hoteliers in Haikou and Sanya was that there is no real 'low season', either. Winter is better, but tourists come all year round. Arrivals at Haikou airport have grown by a monthly average of more than one-third (year-on-year) since last year's Sars crisis.

The billions being pumped into Sanya by the Sheraton, Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Crowne Plaza, Four Seasons, Shangri-La and others are an indicator of future potential. But they are not insurance. For that, locals need to be educated on the benefits of the big resorts; they must be shown how the money of rich tourists can flow into their pockets. And the cadres who still believe Hainan can replicate the Pearl River Delta's industrial success should be shown the early retirement door.

Anthony Lawrance is the Post's special projects editor