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Meliosa Gormley and her son Hugh relaxing on a beach in Sanya, on Hainan island, China. Photo: Courtesy of Meliosa Gormley

Sanya beach resorts draw tourists missing their Bali or Thailand fix, but will they return post-pandemic?

  • Unable to travel abroad, many foreigners in China have turned to Sanya, on Hainan island, for sun, sea and sand
  • Hotels and resorts that have proved popular with non-Chinese visitors include the Edition, the Ritz Carlton, the Park Hyatt, Le Meridien and Club Med

Many foreigners living in mainland China appreciate the variety of landscapes, weather, customs and food the Middle Kingdom has to offer, but also like to take holidays abroad – if not back in their home countries then perhaps on the beaches of Southeast Asia.

With international borders having been sealed by coronavirus restrictions for the past year and a half, however, the resort city of Sanya, on Hainan Island, the southernmost province of China, has proven to be a valued substitute, and a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

“Before [the pandemic struck] we would have been more intrepid travellers whereas now, we just need somewhere to escape to, recharge and relax,” says Meliosa Gormley, “something that Sanya can definitely offer us.”

The Gormley family – the parents and two children – love to travel within China and to explore their “home city”, Beijing. But an annual escape to an overseas beach resort is usually a must. So, when China closed its borders in March 2020, the Irish family started looking for places in China that could give them that beach holiday feel. They found that Sanya offers more than 20km (12 miles) of beaches as well as an array of activities for families.

People play in the Coconut Dream Corridor seaside scenic area at sunset ahead of the summer solstice on June 16, 2021 in Sanya, Hainan province, China. Photo: VCG via Getty Images

Others have made the same discovery. According to the Sanya Tourism Promotion Board, more than 15 million passengers travelled through Sanya Phoenix International Airport in 2020 – fewer than the 20.16 million passengers who arrived in 2019, but a healthy number for a year ravaged by Covid-19 – and 2021 was off to a flying start, with 407,000 arrivals in just the first three days of the year. A whopping 4.5 million tourists visited during February’s Spring Festival, showing support for the government’s aim of having tourism deliver 12 per cent of Hainan’s GDP by 2025, as envisioned in the Provincial People’s Congress’ 14th Five-Year Plan.

And Covid-19 has favoured Hainan, believes Vanessa Jencks, the American editor of English-language guide That’s Sanya.

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“The über-wealthy Chinese who usually go abroad for travel have discovered China for the first time,” she says. Statistics from local surveys show, in fact, that 70 per cent of tourists who have arrived since the coronavirus started closing international borders have come to Sanya for the first time or for the first time in 10 years.

Foreigners are but a small part of the trend but are visiting for much the same reasons as Chinese tourists.

“Sanya, being on an island, meant we really felt like we were out of the city,” Gormley says. Her family, who travelled south in November 2020 and again in April, enjoyed the good air quality, warm balmy evenings and overall change of pace from hectic life in the Chinese capital, she says.

Tourists play on a beach in Sanya pre-pandemic. Photo: Xinhua

The Watts are another Beijing-based family that is familiar with what China – and now Sanya – has to offer. Originally from Britain, the parents and their two children have stayed with monks in Gansu province, enjoyed fresh yak milk for breakfast in Inner Mongolia, cycled while birdwatching in Jiangxi and camped in Hebei.

“But we do like to have breaks from China and not being able to travel abroad now, we wanted to do something that felt familiar and where the language barrier wouldn’t be a huge issue,” says Sally Watt, who found Sanya to be a welcoming and easy beach destination.

Other newcomers have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of their experience in Sanya, too, according to Sarah Keenlyside, chief executive of the Bespoke Travel Company.

“Prior to the pandemic, many pooh-poohed the destination, knowing very well it couldn’t offer the same kind of experience as Bali, Thailand or Vietnam,” she says. “But having been ‘forced’ to go, foreigners have discovered that many of the resorts, their service level and food have all exceeded expectations – and in some cases been better than their sister hotels in Beijing or Shanghai.”

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Hotels and resorts that have proved popular with non-Chinese visitors include the Edition, the Ritz Carlton, the Park Hyatt and, for surfers, Le Meridien, although, for their holidays, the Gormley and the Watt families both chose to stay at Club Med.

“It had been recommended to us due to the vast sports and leisure programme for adults and kids alike so we could kayak, sail, cycle, trapeze and do tai chi while our children enjoyed the endless kids club activities,” Gormley says.

Philip Khokhar is another enthusiastic Sanya convert. Craving a holiday in an environment completely different to his base in Shanghai, the Danish news correspondent has visited not once, but three times over the past year.

“I had always heard that Sanya was too touristy and commercial but its lushness and natural beauty remind me of Southeast Asia, so going there feels a bit like going abroad,” he says.

No matter how pleasantly surprised [expats] have been by Sanya ... once borders reopen, it is likely to lose its appeal
Sarah Keenlyside, CEO, Bespoke Travel Company

As well as that overseas feeling, Hainan’s selling points include the fact that is has fared well with regard to the coronavirus – it has reported just 188 cases and six deaths, in a population of 9 million – and, to encourage shopping, the duty-free purchasing limits were increased from 30,000 yuan (US$4,600) to 100,000 yuan per traveller in June 2020.

The laid-back party atmosphere is what attracted Daniela Cassmer, her husband and their three children to ring in the new year in Sanya.

“Our group of six [foreign] families spend a lot of time together in Beijing, so it felt natural to plan a beach holiday all together since we were unable to go home for Christmas – or for the foreseeable future,” says Cassmer, who comes from Sweden and says she knows of 20 foreign families that have holidayed in Sanya in the past 18 months.

Daniela Cassmer and her friends on New Year’s Eve 2020 in Sanya. Photo: Courtesy of Daniela Cassmer

The Gormley family’s April visit took place during the school holidays so “there were so many Beijingers there, which meant that the kids had plenty of friends to play with while we had fun with our friends, too,” Meliosa Gormley says.

While some expatriates deliberately book the same resorts as their friends, some end up staying at the same hotel by coincidence

“Then, they join tables, eat together and go to many of the same parties,” says Jencks, who moved to Sanya from Beijing with her family two years ago, attracted by job opportunities, a more outdoorsy lifestyle, cleaner air and warmer weather for her children, aged eight and nine.

Before the partying starts, popular daytime adventures in and around Sanya include rainforest hikes and the Atlantis water park. “We also hired a yacht for half a day – although we were not allowed to leave the bay due to government regulations – but it was fun anyway,” Cassmer says.

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Despite the fun, sun and sand, however, the Watt family will not be returning to Hainan once China opens its international borders.

“We really enjoyed the holiday but I wouldn’t say I love Sanya,” Sally Watt says. “We chose it because after five years of ‘do-it-yourself’ trips in China, we needed something different and convenient considering the current situation.”

Khokhar may revisit. Although he is eager to holiday abroad again, somewhere where he doesn’t have to use a VPN to post pictures from the beach on Facebook and Instagram, “it looks like the strict hotel quarantine [for returnees from abroad] won’t end any time soon here in China so I won’t rule out a fourth visit to Sanya soon,” he says.

As for the Cassmers, they have decided to return to Sanya this summer.

“We will first travel to Hunan, to see the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, and then have another relaxing family beach vacation,” Daniela Cassmer says.

While waiting for international borders to open, Sanya has proved its worth to many of China’s wealthy foreigners.

“Expats are realistic though,” Keenlyside says. “A large part of the appeal of the Southeast Asian destinations is the different culture, the boutique shopping opportunities and the local cuisine. No matter how pleasantly surprised they have been by Sanya, it still does not offer those things, so once borders reopen, it is likely to lose its appeal.”