The world stage beckons

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 June, 2004, 12:00am

Hainan has come a long way since the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), when it was known as 'Exile Island', a place for those who had lost the Emperor's favour.

Today, China's southernmost and smallest province has many names. 'Oriental Hawaii' is much favoured by the tourism trade - Sanya is almost on the same latitude as Honolulu. 'Treasure Island' is another epitaph, echoed in the name of several resorts. 'Coconut Island' is obvious: the coast and many low-lying plantations make the heavy green fruit ubiquitous. A newer name is 'Healthy Island' because of the growth of spas and watersports at the big resorts.

Marketing slogans aside, there is little doubt that the island has what it takes to become a world-class tourist destination.

Sanya's beaches rival Southeast Asia's. The coastline is a collection of adorable fishing villages and mangrove swamps. The interior is studded by mountains and valleys providing backdrops for picture-perfect rice paddies and palm plantations. The question is whether the people of Hainan have the motivation and organisational skills to do it.

There is hope. Earlier this year, the central government took the unusual step of naming Wei Liucheng as governor. The former chief executive of China National Offshore Oil Corporation vowed to build up a western-style corporate culture to revitalise the economy and attract new foreign investment. Although there are so far few signs that Mr Wei's reforms have seeped down through the civil service, an air of optimism pervades the international business community which is ploughing billions of dollars into the island.

Plans abound. At present, Hainan's 206 star-rated hotels with 28,541 rooms can handle arrival loads. But as tourism grows, especially international tourism attracted by the publicity generated by successive Miss World contents held in Sanya, more high-quality rooms will be needed. In the next two years, 40 new hotels will open, including five major deluxe resorts. By 2010, planners predict about 75,000 hotel rooms will be available.

Hainan has much more than beaches and beauties to offer all these tourists. The entire island is worth a closer look and, fortunately, this is one of the few places in China where self-drive holidays are a real option. Rental cars are plentiful and rates reasonable. International licences are accepted (but not Hong Kong's due to lack of reciprocity).

The drive between Haikou and Sanya can take three hours or three days. Development is spread around the island's coastline, with resorts and small family hotels available. Eco-tourism is being taken seriously, as about 54 per cent of Hainan is covered by tropical rain forest. Much of the remainder is plantation and farmland.

The biggest obstacle in the way of a boom in tourism development seems to be the lack of international airline connections. This needs to be addressed urgently, according to most people involved in catering to the international market.

If it is, and if the development of tourism on Hainan is given all the support it needs from the top, there is every reason to believe the island province will quickly become a household name among travellers who regularly make Bali and Phuket their summer destinations.