China’s Surprising Tropical Resort : Development is slowly luring tourists back to the beaches of Hainan Island.

HAINAN ISLAND, China — As the 40-minute flight from Guangzhou cut through the clouds and began its descent to Haikou Airport, at the northern tip of Hainan Island, we could see new high-rises protruding over rice fields and tumbledown shacks. Lush fields and ribbons of beach lined both sides of the small city below. We were approaching Haikou, capital of Hainan, China’s newest province.

It took an effort to remember that this was China. Azure water lapped the edges of the land. Visible from the air were palm-fringed bays and hills covered with forests.

Hainan, an island slightly larger than Belgium, today is known as China’s tropical paradise. But more than 1,000 years ago, a Tang Dynasty poet called it “the gate of hell.”

The poet wasn’t thinking of the island’s topography, which hasn’t changed much over the centuries, so much as its primitive living conditions and isolation. Thirty miles off the south coast of China, Hainan Island for centuries has been a backwater–cut off from the economic and intellectual forces that shaped the mainland. Court officials from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) were banished there.

In the 1940s, the island was invaded by the Japanese. During the civil war between the Kuomingtang and the Communists, Communist forces sought refuge among the Li and Miao minorities who occupy the central mountains.

After 1949, Chinese immigrants from Malaysia and Indonesia settled on the island’s east coast, joined in recent years by Chinese from Vietnam. Yet Hainan, which translates in English as “south sea,” remains an outpost. Reflecting that isolation, one of its beaches is called “the ends of the earth.”

Still, the economic changes that have swept through China in the past decade have indeed reached its southern tip. Realizing the potential for foreign currency in the island’s rich natural resources and scenic beauty, the government in 1987 made Hainan–which has a population of 6.3 million–China’s newest province. The following year, Hainan was declared one of the country’s five special economic zones. Lured by tax breaks and other economic incentives, foreign investors began to build hotels and office buildings and expand manufacturing and agriculture.

But the government’s crackdown in Tian An Men Square in June, 1989, put a halt to Hainan’s burgeoning development. Most foreign investment was suspended during the last half of that year. And, according to the Hainan Provincial Tourism Bureau, tourism to the island in 1989 dropped by almost 20% from 1988.

Since then, investment has slowly returned and tourism is undergoing what the Chinese media call a “recovery.” By the end of 1990, the Hainan Provincial Tourism Bureau said that the number of tourists visiting Hainan–mostly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao–was approaching 1988 levels.

The bulk of economic development and construction is apparent in Haikou, where high-rise hotels are sprouting near one-story shacks. The island’s west coast, off limits to foreigners, is dotted with naval installations. On the south and east coasts, the focus is on natural resource development.

But for most tourists, a trip to Hainan means Sanya, the port city at the island’s southern tip where beaches are long and empty and the sea is clear.

Except for the signs in Chinese and the presence of a naval station, Sanya could be a provincial town in the Philippines, which lies to the east, or Vietnam, to the west. The people, predominantly of the Li minority, are slim and small-boned, a different physical type than the Han Chinese, who represent more than 95% of the Chinese population. Sailors from the local naval station, in snappy bell-bottomed uniforms and blue and white caps, stroll everywhere.

Sanya’s wide main street is filled with bus and pedicab traffic. Buses chug. Horns blast. Rock and disco music vibrates from loudspeakers. Street stalls offer clothing and cotton fabric. At a huge daily open market in the town center, you can buy ducks in bamboo cages, vegetables, herbs, guitars and a thousand household items. A flotilla of fishing boats and old navy vessels sits in the harbor.

The adventure of visiting Sanya starts right away at the bus station or airport, where a mob of pedicab drivers offer rides to the local hotels. The motorized pedicabs are a fast introduction to the unruly atmosphere of this relatively small (by Chinese standards) city of 200,000. The pedicab ride is a bumpy, open-air race past buses, cars and other pedicabs, with horns constantly blaring, all for about $1.25. It’s great fun. Just hold on to your hat . . . and your luggage.

Sanya’s main draw is its beaches, the best of which lie east of town, along a renovated road that reflects the island’s revamping. Less than three years ago, this national highway was a rutted two-lane road winding past small shacks in banana groves. Now paved and smoothed and dotted with shops, it shoots past hotels at various stages of development.

About three miles east of Sanya is the turnoff to Luhuitou, an area that includes a village and a small beach off a coral reef.

Luhuitou is the oldest resort in Sanya, a scattering of cottages and bungalows set in a grove of pine trees and coconut palms. Popular with high-ranking officials for more than 30 years, Luhuitou has been open to the public since 1985. Just outside the hotel grounds is a tiny village with small cafes. Jeepney (modernized Jeeps) and taxi service to and from Da Dong Hai and Sanya operate into the evening.

Luhuitou, which means “deer turning around,” got its name from a local folk tale about a hunter who was chasing a deer and, just as he was about to shoot it, the animal turned into a beautiful young woman. Of course he fell in love. A statue of a deer stands atop the hill overlooking the point.

Just beyond the turnoff to Luhuitou off the main road is Da Dong Hai (Big East Sea) beach, a crescent of white sand and coconut palms facing an azure bay. This is the stuff of postcards and million-dollar tourism–though not quite yet, even as the new hotels are being built. Until the organized tours arrive, complete with their whistles and horns, Da Dong Hai is a great place for swimming and quiet sunbathing.

At the east end of the beach, a small pavilion sits on a rise; at the west end, huge rocks invite climbing and views of the South China Sea. A path over the hill to Luhuitou offers views of Sanya to the west and miles of open sea.

Although Da Dong Hai beach is open to the general public, the easiest access is through the adjacent hotel, a two-minute walk from the sand. The popular Da Dong Hai Beach Resort, on the main road from Haikou, is at the end of a short lane lined with bamboo shops selling fresh seafood. The ’60s-style, pastel-colored stucco buildings face a palm garden and, beyond that, the sea. The main section is a comfortable three-story modern hotel with double rooms, private baths and balconies overlooking the sea. A luxury wing is under construction. Dormitory accommodations are also available. The restaurant serves good food and has a small bar.

At the beach’s west end is the gleaming new Jinling hotel, with its airy lobby and Western and Chinese restaurants.

Another stretch of pristine beach, long and open though occasionally buffeted by winds, is at Yalong Bay, 15 miles east of Sanya. Although the government has announced plans for major development here, only one Japanese joint-venture hotel has appeared so far. Diving and snorkeling trips to Yalong can be arranged at hotels in Sanya.

Eating in Sanya means seafood, fruit and vegetables. The best places are the free-enterprise shacks at the beaches. Avoid the sturdy cement restaurant at Luhuitou beach. It’s state-owned, frequented only by tourist groups and is notorious for its terrible food. Best of all is to sit at a table on the sand, sipping local beer and watching the sun set before devouring a plate of fresh prawns. The shacks also offer banana fritters, omelets, fresh coffee and other dishes geared to the Western palate.

For the connoisseur of tropical beaches, Hainan Island is worth a visit, especially before development takes off. The expectation and fear among some Westerners is that foreign money may turn Sanya into a Chinese version of Puerto Vallarta. The organized tours have started, and the para-sailing entrepreneurs have set up shop.

But for now, Sanya is authentic: virtually deserted beaches, gentle surf, clear water and coconut palms that stand like sentries. The Tang poet might be surprised to see what’s happening to the “gate of hell.”

GUIDEBOOK

China’s Hainan Island

Getting there: United, Northwest, Air China, Japan Air Lines and ANA (All Nippon Airways) fly from Los Angeles to China, most stopping in Tokyo en route. Lowest round-trip fares are about $2,000. Visas required.

Until Sanya International Airport opens in late 1992 or early 1993, Haikou is the only accessible destination for the air traveler going on to Hainan. From Hong Kong, China Southern Airlines and Dragonair fly to Haikou. Within China, flights to Haikou originate from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

By train and boat: From Hong Kong, it’s a two-hour train ride to Guangzhou ($35 if booked in Hong Kong, $50 if booked in the United States); from Guangzhou to Haikou, ferry service is available several times per week. Ferry service is also available from Hong Kong to Haikou. The 18-hour trip costs $80-$100.

By bus: From Haikou, most travelers reach Sanya via a five- to six-hour air-conditioned bus ride that costs about $10 one way.

Where to stay: In Haikou, the Qiong Yuan on Haifu Road is a quiet, pleasant garden hotel on the banks of the Meishe River; local telephone 22613; about $45 double. The Haikou Tower Complex is about $30-$50 double; address: Binghai Lu; phone 23962.

In Sanya, the popular Da Dong Hai Beach Resort has doubles with balconies and views for $25-$40, dorm space for $6-$10. Address: Dagong Hai Tourist Center, Sanya; telephone 998. The Jinling Hotel at the west end of Da Dong Hai beach has rates similar to the Da Dong Hai Beach Resort. Address Jinling Hotel, Sanya. The historic Luhuitou resort, a sprinkling of cottages in a pine grove, has recently been remodeled; doubles $25-$40, dorm space available. Address: Luhuitou Guest House, Ye Zhang, Sanya.

Where to eat: The tastiest food is available at small, privately run cafes at the beach. The Southern Comfort Restaurant at Da Dong Hai offers beach dining, banana daiquiris and coconut milk.

For more information: Contact CITS in Guangzhou, 170 Huanshi Road, telephone 662447. Also contact the China National Tourist Office, 333 W. Broadway, Suite 201, Glendale 91204, (818) 545-7505.

“China’s Surprising Tropical Resort : Development is slowly luring tourists back to the beaches of Hainan Island.” by Joan Aragone was originally published in the LA Times on March 22, 1992

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