After being the biggest special economic zone for 20 years, the island province of Hainan is now focusing on developing its tourism industry.
In a written reply on Wednesday to Hainan's blueprint for developing itself into an "international tourism island," the State Council requested all ministries and central government agencies to provide strong support.
The cabinet approved the setting-up of duty-free shops this year in the cities of Haikou, Sanya, Qionghai and Wanning, to boost the island's tourism.
"Hainan's unique natural environment can contribute to the overall economy of the country in the next five to 10 years, or even longer, focusing on tourism instead of science and technology," Hainan Party chief Wei Liucheng said.
Hainan is seen as China's answer to Hawaii.
It boasts tropical beaches and forests, a beautiful rural landscape, and a rich ethnic folk culture. The island has been enjoying preferential policies such as visa-free tourism and freedom of aviation rights since 2000, Zhang Qi, head of Hainan provincial tourism bureau, said.
"This strategy on tourism marks a new era. It will give the island more investment advantages in its reform and opening up," Zhang said.
Duty-free shops are usually a key way to encourage tourists to spend more, as witnessed in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bali, Indonesia.
There were 129 duty-free shops in China last year with sales of 4.98 billion yuan (711 million U.S. dollars).
The establishment of duty-free shops in the country, however, must undergo strict approval procedures. Most duty-free shops are located at airports mainly for tourists leaving the country, so its effect on boosting spending is not significant.
Starting from 2002, tourist groups comprising of more than five people from 21 countries have been allowed to visit Hainan visa-free. But the local government thinks this is not enough and wants the visa-free policy to be extended to individual visitors.
In recent years the province has been able to attract a large number of leisure companies.
Several world hotel brands have been building along the Haitang Gulf of Sanya city, aiming to turn the gulf into a top recreation and vacation destination.
Together with the Hong Kong Tourism Board and Cathy Pacific Airlines, Hainan launched a multi-stop tour route in London on Friday, trying to attract British and European travelers. They will be able to shop in Hong Kong and spend their leisure time in Hainan.
Last year, the island attracted 18.4 million domestic and foreign tourists, reaping 17.1 billion yuan.
Since 1987, the number of tourists has increased 24-fold and revenue from tourism 150-fold.
(China Daily April 23, 2008)