Hainan a place of exile no more as white sands and blue water beckon for tourists
Records indicate that only 18 hardy souls toured the island of Hainan by choice during the 700-year period spanning the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties.
Beyond the fringes of Han civilisation, Hainan was regarded as a godforsaken place of exile, home to barbarous head-hunting tribes and traitorous officials - certainly not a destination for a relaxing weekend break.
Today, in the southern beach resort of Sanya , barbarity is largely confined to young mainland couples garishly dressed in matching Hawaiian beach outfits and obese Russians in tiny Speedos baked lobster-red under the tropical sun.
Already a favourite of mainland holidaymakers, Hainan's turquoise waters, white sands, lush rainforests and mist-wreathed mountains are beginning to attract foreign tourists.
Last year, more than 5 million tourists flocked to Sanya's palm-fringed coast, including 522,000 from overseas, 134,000 more than the year before.
Tourist officials are criss-crossing Europe promoting Sanya as 'China's tropical paradise' in a bid to compete with more popular destinations in Southeast Asia.
'The huge increase in foreign tourists over the past few years brings the prospect of emulating Phuket, Bali and other famous tourist destinations within 20 or 30 years,' Hainan's deputy governor, Wu Changyuan, told provincial delegates at this year's meeting of the National People's Congress in Beijing.
Increasingly, the infrastructure is in place. Aside from the well-established, mid-market tourist areas around Dadonghai on the edge of Sanya city, the exclusive resort at Yalong Bay is close to reaching maturity.
Already home to high-end hotels managed by Hilton, Marriott and Sheraton, this summer will see Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and Banyan Tree open beachside premises by the bay, a 30-minute drive from Sanya city.
'The setting, the environment, is absolutely stunning. The potential is here to rival the great tourist destinations and I think in 10 years, realistically, it will be very near,' said Jean-Pierre Mainardi, a veteran international hotelier managing the Hilton Sanya Resort in Yalong Bay.
Although about 60 per cent of the Hilton's guests are well-off mainlanders and a further 10 per cent come from Hong Kong, Mr Mainardi said there was growing interest from Russia, Korea, Japan and Western Europe.
Hainan is already a favourite winter destination for Korean golfers, who flock to the island's world-class courses. These include Yalong Bay Golf Club, which hosts matches on the China PGA Tour, and the recently opened 27 holes at Sun Valley, a stunning and technical course set amid tropical ravines.
However, Sanya lacks the expertise to compete with the best international resorts and must rely on top foreign hotels to drag up standards, according to Deputy Mayor Li Baiqing .
'We are the best in China, but we are still a long way behind international standards. Hainan needs specialist investment - money with know-how,' he said.
Hence the millions of yuan spent on bringing the Miss World beauty pageant to Sanya and the space given to big international hotel brands, which the government is allowing to develop a 'seven-star' luxury resort at Haitang Bay, a beautiful strip of pristine beach that officials promise will outstrip Yalong Bay.
Yet much still needs to be done to bring Sanya's tourist software up to scratch. Monkey Island, one of Hainan's heralded tourist sites and a big draw for mainland and Russian holidaymakers, features exploitative shows of monkey acrobatics - unlikely to please many western tourists.
Dadonghai, Sanya's major tourist beach, has become a virtual Russian colony, featuring Georgian restaurants and a neon-lit bar street where dancing girls in synthetic grass skirts bounce up and down in front of giant screens showing sitcoms beamed from Moscow.
Most tourist sites are purpose-built and there is precious little authentic local culture to offer the more discerning visitor.
'Sanya's hotels are superb, but we wouldn't choose to come here for a family holiday rather than go, say, to Phuket,' said Curt Redden, a Florida native holidaying in Yalong Bay after a business trip to Guangdong.
'In Thailand, you have the hotels but there's also local culture to experience, like elephant trekking. They have wonderful mountains here, but when I asked about hiking they had nothing,' he said.
'There is not enough of interest culturally, but we can develop that,' agreed the Hilton's Mr Mainardi, suggesting that the island's mountainous interior should be opened up for jungle trekking and trips to rice paddies and banana plantations.
A further problem is comparatively poor access to the island, with Sanya's Phoenix Airport receiving far fewer international flights than competitors such as Phuket.
'There are not enough direct flights; far from it,' Mr Mainardi said. 'The number of international routes is not adequate to substantiate the development here.'
However, since Beijing began to open up the skies to foreign airlines transiting through Hainan in 2006, the number of international routes has surged. Phoenix Airport now receives flights from more 70 destinations on the mainland and more than 30 foreign cities.
The influx of Russian beach-lovers over the past three years, who numbered 147,000 last year, followed the introduction of direct flights to Sanya from Moscow, St Petersburg and Vladivostok.
The number of British tourists also soared by nearly 200 per cent to 16,000 last year after the tour company Airtours began chartering flights to serve its new package holiday to Yalong Bay.
'Can foreign tourists fly to Hainan? This is something we are paying great attention to,' said Chen Yibo, director of marketing and communications at Hainan's Tourism Administration. 'All those foreign tourists who go to Southeast Asia could come to Hainan.'
Area: 33,940sq km
Economy: Became a Special Economic Zone in 1988. Rich in many natural resources including tropical hardwoods and minerals. Fishing and pearl harvesting off the coast provide a significant supplement to crop cultivation. The hot climate and many beaches have bolstered investment in the tourism and resort industry
GDP 2007: 122.96b yuan, up 14.5 % on 2006. Inflation rate 5% in 2007
Tourist arrivals Jan-Mar 2008: 5.64m, up 11.4% on same period in 2007; Revenue from tourism 5.82b yuan, up 11.5%
Per capita income at the end of March 2008: Urban 3,697 yuan, up 11.4% year on year; Rural 1,290 yuan, up 19.1%
Source: Hainan Government