Just 10 years ago, few non-backpackers from beyond mainland China ventured to Hainan Island. The Chinese themselves were only starting to become acquainted with the benefits of beach holidays and Hainan’s tourism infrastructure was basic, with just a few hotels and apartment blocks. Flights to the island’s two airports — located in the northern capital, Haikou, and at Sanya in the south — were infrequent, and most of the picture-postcard bays on China’s largest island were inaccessible.
Mandarin Oriental, Sanya. // © 2009 Mandarin Oriental
To make matters worse, in April 2001, the South China Sea island of Hainan became known around the world as the location of a collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese military jet. The consequent diplomatic rift between the two nations grabbed global headlines, and Hainan’s positioning as a travel destination plummeted even further.
Shortly after, however, tourism life began to stir. Yalong Bay, near Sanya, tentatively emerged as Hainan’s first planned coastal retreat. Marriott, Sheraton and, a little later, Hilton, opened adjacent resorts offering easy access to a pristine, private white-sand bay and azure sea. Year-round tropical weather kept the jet-skis buzzing and the windsurfers and younger banana-boat riders sated.
Such is the pace of transformation in all aspects of travel and tourism in China that by March 2009 The New York Times was describing Hainan as a “palm-fringed paradise of uncrowded waves, cheap and delicious seafood and a quirky landscape.” From out of almost nowhere, Hainan has become one of Asia’s hottest resort destinations.
The tropical isle of Hainan also holds a unique place in Chinese folklore. Loosely translated as “South of the Sea,” Hainan was nicknamed the End of the Earth since it was to here that disgraced officials and enemies of the Imperial court in Beijing were shipped and left to rot.
Times have changed dramatically. Today’s arrivals at Sanya’s Phoenix International Airport come filled with the optimism of a new China; where world-class resorts created in partnership by mainland developers and international hoteliers await high-end tourists. This is no longer the end of the earth for honeymooners, weekenders, team-building and MICE groups, golfers and cruise passengers. Instead, the curved bays and white-sand beaches, flanked by rainforested hills, are home to a new generation of luxe lodgings led by Mandarin Oriental, Le Meridien, Banyan Tree and The Ritz-Carlton.
Hainan’s development pipeline is only just getting started, however. After Shanghai, it ranks second in China for the volume of new hotels in the works — with 6,000 new rooms slated in the next two years. Among the new openings will be upscale resorts by Fairmont (Haitang Bay), Jumeirah (Clearwater Bay), Park Hyatt (Sunny Bay), Four Seasons (Kanyang Bay and Shenzhou Peninsula), St. Regis (Yalong Bay) and Taj (Xiangshui Bay).
Hainan’s high-profile accommodations grab most of the attention, but the island’s tropical attractions transcend poolside villas, fine-dining restaurants, kids clubs and exotic spas. This, after all, is China’s premium holiday destination — and the island, located between China and Vietnam, boasts landscapes reminiscent of Southeast Asia.
Most of the resorts are located in the south of the island, clustered along bay fronts near the city of Sanya. Daily flights arrive and depart here from cities across China and Southeast Asia, while charters ferry in Russian, Japanese and Korean vacationers. Demand from passengers is also forcing cruise operators to add Sanya to some Asian Pacific voyages.
Beyond the beaches, Hainan counts around 20 top golf courses, including the Yalong Bay Golf Club designed by Robert Trent Jones II, and the Sun Valley Club, which features the longest par-6 golf hole in China. Inland, courses have been landscaped amid rubber plantations and meander across rainforested peaks.
More active sports aficionados can rent bikes from most resorts and head for the cycling paths that weave through the hills that flank the most picturesque bays.
Surfing is another up-and-coming attraction in Hainan. The Le Meridien resort currently stands alone overlooking the stunning 3½-mile arc of Shimei Bay that segues into Riyue Bay. Here, the fearsome waves attract surfers from around the world for the Hainan Open tournament each January. In addition, the team from Surfing Hainan arranges surf tours and lessons at various breaks along the east coast during the peak wave season from September to March.
For U.S. travelers, Hainan Island is still new territory. Only 13,600 Americans visited in 2008, but this number was enough to make it the fourth-largest international source market, after Russia, South Korea and Japan. A lack of direct flights between Hainan and the U.S. means this number may rise slowly. However, its appeal is growing as the island’s resort infrastructure expands and diversifies.
While travelers to China will still be enthralled by Beijing’s imperial palaces and The Great Wall, Xian’s Terra-Cotta Warriors and Shanghai’s 21st-century urban verve, Hainan Island’s easy access from almost every mainland Chinese city may push its popularity as an add-on destination for visitors lingering a bit longer in the Middle Kingdom.