Sanya: The other side of China - Tropical Beaches - Hainan Island
has yet to be "Discovered" by Westerners - by Edward Cody Washington
Post, August 1, 2007
Beijing? Check. Shanghai? Check. The Great Wall and Forbidden City?
Can't miss. They are all worth the trip, beacons of China's
5,000-year-old civilization, and the Olympic Games are coming in
summer 2008 to further enrich the mix.
But here is something you or your travel agent may not have thought
of as part of China tourism: beach time.
At Sanya, on Yalong Bay at the southern end of Hainan Island, sun
and surf are the main attractions. One of China's 28 provinces,
Hainan lies only 30 miles off the mainland's southern rim.
Forget whatever you know about China. Think rows of umbrellas on
creamy beaches and poolside drinks at languorous international-brand
resorts. Think tropical warmth, palm trees and humid breezes from
the South China Sea. For children - or grown-ups, for that matter -
who can take only so much ancient civilization in one trip, Hainan
Island may be a welcome respite from culture fatigue before heading
Almost a million Americans visited China last year, making them the
country's fourth-most-numerous nationality of tourists after
Japanese, South Koreans and Russians. Strangely, however, the idea
of tacking some lazy Hainan time onto a trip to China seems not to
have caught on. Although 16 million Chinese tourists visited Hainan
last year, only about a half million foreign tourists visited. Of
those, most were from Hong Kong, Taiwan or other Asian nations; many
were South Koreans in search of wintertime golf. Even among the
36,000 Americans and Canadians who showed up, most were expatriates
taking a break from jobs in Shanghai or Beijing.
The sea was a perfect high 60s during my recent visit, and the hot
sun came and went between bulbous tropical clouds. I watched as a
young father and his toddler son let the gentle waves roll across
their bodies. Behind them, older children dug happily in the clean
sand. A pair of European women in skimpy swimsuits basked in the sun
farther up the beach. But as I looked around, the sunbathers seemed
rare. Then I realized why: Almost everyone around me was Chinese,
and the last thing a Chinese person wants is a tan.
Not so Jeff Denny, of Cincinnati, and his wife, Melissa, who with
their children, Caleb, 13, and Holly, 10, had traveled from Shanghai
to spend some time on the Sanya beaches during the recent May Day
holiday. It was their second visit here since being posted to China
by Procter & Gamble. But despite her proselytizing among ex-pat
friends in Shanghai, Melissa Denny noted, Hainan does not enjoy the
recognition as a tropical Asian destination that Phuket in Thailand
does, or Bali in Indonesia.
"When Americans come to China, they go to the Great Wall, the Summer
Palace, the Forbidden City, maybe Xi'An and the terra cotta
warriors," complained Zhang Qi, director-general of the Hainan
Provincial Tourism Administration. "But here in Hainan, we also have
seaside resorts. Americans just don't know about Hainan and the
That can be a good thing for those who do come. Although resorts
along Yalong Bay include well-known names such as Sheraton, Marriott
and Hilton, American guests can still enjoy the feeling of being in
a foreign country. Room prices, from about $200 a night in low
season up to $800 during February's Chinese New Year holiday, mean
that only upper-crust Chinese vacation here (although less luxurious
accommodations also are available). But the number of Chinese
families with money to spend is rising fast, so reservations may
become hard to get.
Given China's record in spoiling the environment, swift growth in
the number of tourists could also threaten the island's pristine
water and uncluttered beaches. Wei Liucheng, the Hainan provincial
governor, suggested recently that limits on the number of visitors
may be needed.
But at this point, Zhang said, Hainan's tourist department is trying
to persuade U.S. travel agencies to send American vacationers on
direct flights to the island, which has two international airports.
China has relaxed immigration rules so that tourists from 21
countries, including the U.S., can enter Hainan without visas if
they come in groups of five or more.
For tourists already in China, however, Hainan is a quick hop.
Direct flights from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other Chinese
cities are frequent. A ferry links Zhanjiang on the mainland to
Haikou. And train service (provided via rail-equipped ferries) from
mainland cities all the way to Sanya was inaugurated for the May Day
The Weather in Sanya? Think Hawaii
The weather on Hainan is consistently Hawaii-like, and the sun
shines 300 days a year, often ceding the sky to clouds and rain then
reappearing within a few hours.
Native islanders, who number about 8 million, speak a dialect that
sounds miles away from Mandarin, China's official language. Most are
from China's major ethnic group, the Han, but more than a million
are from the Li minority, which claims to be the earliest
inhabitants of the island. Islanders' ready smiles and easygoing
ways also seem to set them apart from the often-stressed-out
residents of big mainland cities. Visitors who savor the island's
seafood, tropical fruit and clean air will understand why. The
living is easy.
Haikou, the provincial capital at the northern tip, started
the island's tourism industry and boasts a number of resort hotels
within a 20-minute drive of the downtown. But Sanya, a three-hour
drive south, has become the premier tourist destination in recent
years, with a dozen major resorts overlooking Yalong Bay's gently
sloping beach on one side and a deeply green golf course on the
Boao, about halfway down the island's east coast, has entered
the competition, with a luxurious resort and conference center
overlooking the Wanquan River as it flows into the sea. Wang Hong,
the Sofitel-run resort's deputy general manager, said TV reports
from the conference center with its spectacular scenery in the
background have drawn Japanese and South Korean golfers.
As Wang and I lunched on grilled shrimp and Sheban fish, boats
ferried tourists out to a sand spit with a river beach on one side
and a sea beach on the other. Wang proposed a chardonnay he said was
the best produced in China. Who was I to disagree?
The only thing between us and the water was a latticework of two
dozen hot-spring pools, each dosed with a different Chinese herbal
medicine to soothe what ails you. I don't know about the power of
traditional Chinese medicine, but the chardonnay seemed to heal my
aches. And the wind smelled so good I wanted to bottle it to take
back to polluted Beijing.
It is cheapest to fly to Hong Kong, then to Sanya, on Hainan's
southern end, for about $237 round-trip on Dragonair. Flights from
Hong Kong to Haikou, the capital city on the northern end of the
island, start at $424 round-trip on China Southern. Train and ferry
service also link Hainan to the mainland. The two-hour train to
Zhanjiang is about $20; the overnight train to Guangzhou about $50.