Hainan looks to expand its appeal

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Phoenix Island in Sanya will soon have a 7-star hotel. 

China might not be most people's idea of the ultimate beach destination, but this might be about to change.

The Chinese government wants Hainan, the country's only tropical island, to be an international tourism destination by 2020.

Boosting tourism on the island is part of the government's Belt and Road Initiative in terms of fostering greater cultural exchanges with other countries.

Tourism has also been classed as one of China's key strategic industries and one that will play a role in its transformation to a more services-led economy and away from low-cost manufacturing.

The number of inbound overseas tourists into China was 128.5 million last year, according to government figures, and the United Nations' World Tourism Organization forecasts the country will be the world's biggest tourism destination by 2020.

Hainan, however, faces a tough challenge attracting international tourists. Last year, only 650,000, or 1.4 percent, of its 47.89 million visitors came from outside China.

The island is partly handicapped by its own success. Many wealthy Chinese have multimillion-dollar second homes and their yachts moored in Sanya, Hainan's main resort, which has become a playground of the rich.

At certain times of the year, particularly Chinese New Year, hotel room rates can skyrocket in the resort, with the starting price for a week's accommodation often not leaving much change from 50,000 yuan ($8,050).

This can make an expensive destination compared with established resorts in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, which are also more international.

Luo Baoming, the top Party official in Hainan, is keen to take on the challenge.

"To build Hainan into a world-class specialist tourist zone is vital for the province to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative," he said.

"Tourism is the bridge for promoting friendship and cultural exchanges. It is the essential platform for us to be positioned on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road."

Hainan has made huge strides as a tourism center. In 1988, it just had 1.2 million tourists, with 204,600 from outside China.

International tourists hit a peak of 1 million in 2008 when the overall total number of tourists was 20 million, less than half the current total.

The number of domestic tourists to the island continues to increase at a much faster rate than those from abroad.

Yet a number of policies are in place to attract more international tourists, including visa-free entry for up to 15 days for tour groups of more than five from 26 specified countries.

One of the problems for the Hainan government is that it only has a limited annual tourism advertising budget of $2 million, and this also has been squeezed in recent years.

The local government has been working with the BBC to build a special Hainan webpage, which is updated twice a month.

It also cooperates similarly with TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel site.

In addition, it places billboard ads in the baggage reclaim areas of airports in key target countries such as Russia, Australia, Thailand and South Korea.

At a restaurant in the center of Haikou, Chen Tiejun, deputy director-general of the Hainan Tourism Development Commission, said it is a challenge.

"We have to make better use of the money we have. We are also actually adjusting our strategy by doing more online marketing, which is more cost-effective," he said.

In London, Ben Briggs, marketing manager of Wendy Wu Tours UK, the leading China specialist tour operator, does believe some of this marketing is paying off.

"It (Hainan) is definitely becoming more prominent in the United Kingdom. They (Hainan tourism officials) have been a little bit more proactive in terms of attending trade shows," he said.

"I think there is a big awareness problem about Hainan generally. Not many people know of it. It is definitely important for them to get tour operators on board to help them promote their messages."

Ed Robertson, consulting editor of the Travel Trade Gazette, a leading travel trade magazine, believes Hainan might have chosen the right time to promote itself as an international tourism destination.

Many European tourists are looking for alternative destinations after the terrorist attack on a beach near Sousse in Tunisia on June 26, which killed 38.

"Traditionally, the Mediterranean has always been popular, but it has been susceptible to problems of late. Sadly, the whole of north Africa is not great. The UK foreign office is advising none but essential travel to Tunisia. There have been problems in Egypt, and even Turkey is having a tough time because people see it being near Syria. So new destinations are going to need to open up," he said.

One resort city that could be a magnet for international tourists is Sanya. Some are confident it has the potential to be the Dubai or Miami of the South China Sea.

Sanya's man-made 365,000-square-meter Phoenix Island, designed by the Chinese architect Ma Yansong, certainly resembles The Palm and other reclamation developments in the United Arab Emirates city.

Li Li, deputy general manager of the Sanya Phoenix Island Investment Group, which plans to invest a further 17.6 billion yuan in the area, said she believes Sanya will be firmly on the international map within 10 years.

"I can see it being like Dubai as a place where celebrities such as David Beckham have homes and also a center for international film festivals such as Cannes," she said.

Key to the success of the development is making Sanya an established international cruise destination.

By the end of next year it will have a 225,000 tonnage berth that will be able to take even the world's largest cruise ships. It already had the Queen Mary II visit during this year's Spring Festival.

Cruise liners stop off at Sanya after Hong Kong en route to Vietnam, but there are only likely to be 33 visits this year, compared with 113 in 2013, because of concerns by operators about territorial disputes in the area.

Zhou Chunhua, director of the Sanya Tourism Development Commission, speaking in a 28th-floor executive apartment overlooking the azure blue bay, said the key to popularizing Sanya among foreign tourists are cruise ships.

"A cruise ship can stop for seven or eight hours and people can visit the city. When they go home they can tell people about Sanya," she said.

Sanya is at the vanguard of Hainan's efforts to become an international tourist destination by 2020, with visitor numbers growing 17.9 percent annually for the past five years.

Hotel room capacity has increased by 7 percent over the past five years, and another 50 hotels are set to be built within four years.

"One of the problems of Sanya is it is often known only in China and people who own yachts but not by the mass market, and that is what we want to address," she said.

Lily Chen, marketing manager of Sanya Visun Royal Yacht Club, a prime haunt of the Chinese superrich, said business has been affected by the government's anti-corruption campaign.

The club has 800 members-almost all Chinese-paying 198,000 yuan for five years' membership.

"The economy also has not really been that good over the past two years, and that has affected business."

She said many Chinese buy yachts just to entertain people in the marina.

"Many actually don't know how to sail, so they use the yacht to meet friends. We are keen to educate members and teach them how to sail," she said.

Briggs at Wendy Wu Tours said one of the best opportunities for Hainan is to attract second-and third-time visitors to China who have already seen the Great Wall, the Forbidden City in Beijing and the 21st-century Shanghai shopping malls.

"It could be attractive for those who have been to China before and have done all the bucket list sites," he said.

"They might want to add a beach destination for a few days at the end of the trip."

Retired teachers Lynne Skeith, 63, and her husband, Trevor, 66, from Repton in Derbyshire in the UK, who visited Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an on their first China trip in 2011, are among those who might be receptive to this.

"If we were to go back, we are not really fully aware of what Hainan has to offer. We are not averse to a couple of days by the pool or beach, but we like sightseeing and culture. We are more likely to use it as a drop-off point on a cruise," said Lynne Skeith.

One of the aims of the tourism planners is to open up the inland areas to tourism to boost the local economies.

Qionghai in eastern Hainan has villages that date back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Wanning boasts tropical forests and magnificent landscapes.

Speaking late at night at Qionghai's Old House coffee shop-with its green-tiled roof an example of centuries old traditional architecture-Yang Fen, director of Qionghai Tourism, said tourism is now vital for the local economy.

Before 2012, 85 percent of the city's GDP came from real estate sales with tourism generating just 10 percent. But that model became unsustainable. Last year, up to 30 percent of the local economy was generated by tourism, he said.

"We are very keen to promote our culture to the outside world. Most tourists are from Southeast Asia, but we are keen to attract Westerners, too," he said.

There are a number of theme parks and other attractions in central Hainan.

One is the Xinglong Tropical Garden, which has been recognized by the United Nations for its environmental work, and was set up by former architect Colin Cheng Wen Thay in 1992.

Spread over 400 hectares, it has 4,000 different species of plants.

It is the lifework of the lithe and sun-burnished Cheng, 70, who was born in Indonesia.

"The visitors often assume I am the gardener since I am often doing physical work," he said, puffing on a State Express 555 in his magnificent wood-constructed house on the estate.

"We get many international tourists, but mostly from Southeast Asia. Those from the US or Europe are mainly overseas Chinese."

Some may question whether tourism should be part of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is often seen as geopolitical and about securing trade routes.

Jim Stoopman, program coordinator of the European Institute for Asian Studies, a think tank based in Brussels and Luxembourg, insists tourism could actually be central to the initiative.

"Despite maybe not being strategic in the pure political or economic sense, tourism could be the foundation from which the Belt and Road Initiative turns into a global success," he said.

"I think it is more than just about infrastructure building and the enhancement of intra-regional trade. I see it as a grand 'social project' in which people from different regions, social classes, religions and cultures get a better chance to interact. Tourism and other people-to-people exchanges are a great vehicle for this."

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