The world is welcome

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am

FOR CENTURIES IT was the 'end of the Earth' - a place of banishment from the Chinese cultural heartland for disgraced and out-of-favour officials. Today, more than seven million tourists - about 95 per cent of them domestic - flock to Hainan Island every year.

For almost all of them, the chief attraction is China's place in the sun, Sanya , a strip of sand and surf at around the same latitude as Vientiane and Chiang Mai. A decade ago, when local tourism authorities began trumpeting Sanya as the 'Hawaii of the East', there was very little in the area besides a dusty city and some near-deserted beaches at Dadonghai and Yalong Bay . The few foreign visitors tended to be adventurous backpackers or English teachers seeking refuge from China's frosty northern winters.

Goodbye to all that. The backpackers may have deserted Hainan for cheaper beach destinations around the region, but improved facilities and communications are attracting increasing numbers of better-heeled foreign tourists - more than 211,000 of them last year, a 38 per cent increase on the year before.

The upsurge in foreign interest is a trend that will probably continue, bolstered by high-profile events such as the Miss World pageant, which is being held for the third time in Sanya this year. With 125 countries and regions expected to take part, it is a great public relations oppor-tunity for the burgeoning holiday destination. That is good news for the hotel industry, too. Expectations that Sanya is on the brink of a tourism boom similar to Phuket and Bali have resulted in a flood of five-star hotel chains establishing a presence at Sanya's Yalong Bay.

An exclusive ribbon of white-sand beach on the South China Sea, Yalong is Sanya's jewel in the crown, though some foreign visitors may find that the dominance of resort hotels to the exclusion of anything bar the beach itself makes for a more sanitised destination than its rivals around the region.

For local colour, Dadonghai Beach - about 20 minutes by taxi from Yalong - is the place to go. It has budget accommodation and at least one locally managed resort that will not break the bank, along with a lively beach scene, restaurants and bars. There is a raw earthiness to the area that suggests its full potential has yet to be exploited, but in the meantime the atmosphere is still a treat. By night, tables are set up in the park adjoining the beach and barbecued seafood and cold beer are served up for the holidaymakers.

While cultural attractions are scarce, there is still enough to fill up a day or two with sightseeing. Wuzhizhou Island , about 20 minutes off the coast, rivals some of the islands of southern Thailand, and has a tasteful locally run resort. There is snorkelling and scuba-diving, jet-skiing and paragliding - everything we expect of a holiday destination.

With direct daily flights to Sanya from Hong Kong, it is possible to be beachside sipping a cocktail in under two hours - just do not take any controversial reading material. Sanya customs officials will go through luggage for suspect printed matter.

As for the convention centre and permanent home of the Forum for Asia, Boao is still below the radar for most foreign visitors. It is worth a night or two, however. With first-class hotels, hot springs, river excursions, rustic villages and utter peace and quiet when the conventions are off duty, it is the perfect spot to forget the push and shove of daily life.