China's "Hawaii" goes upmarket to lure tourists

SANYA, China (Reuters Life!) - Long stretches of pristine sandy beaches and year-round sunshine -- China’s tropical island of Hainan has got it all, and now its wants wealthy tourists to start enjoying it.

A view shows the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Sanya, Hainan province May 14, 2008. REUTERS/Andy Gao

Hainan, once a lonely place of exile that today styles itself on Hawaii, aims to become a luxury destination to rival Bali and Phuket, with several high-end resorts opening up for business.

April alone saw the Ritz-Carlton and Singapore-listed Banyan Tree opening resorts. The Mandarin Oriental follows in late 2008 with its own chic hotel.

It marks a huge change for Hainan, which until recently was known in China as a place for cheap-and-cheerful package tours, and little known abroad except in Russia, South Korea and Japan.

“Sanya is one of the real new tropical destinations in Asia, and in China in particular it is the only tropical island,” said the Banyan Tree Sanya’s general manager, Peter Pedersen.

“It’s becoming more and more in demand for both the local market and the international tourist market. It makes a perfect spot,” he told Reuters, standing on top of one of the resort’s pool villas, which go for some 5,000 yuan ($716) a night.

Hoteliers say the market is ripe for the move upscale.

“It’s going to enhance the image of Sanya as not only being a good touristic destination but also now to capture elite travelers. Not only from the mainland, but from the world,” said Michel Goget, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Sanya.

With rates ranging from 1,500 yuan to 6,000 yuan and above a night, 33 pool villas each with private butlers, and a beach front wedding chapel, the Ritz-Carlton is determined to compete with more established destinations in Thailand and Indonesia.

“My competitors are not next door. They are in Phuket and Bali and destinations like that,” Goget told Reuters. “In 20 years from now I know that Sanya will become the Miami of Asia.”


While most tourists to Hainan are mainland Chinese -- 18 million last year against just 750,000 overseas visitors -- the government is working hard to attract affluent foreigners, who it hopes will boost the island’s reputation and coffers.

The goal is to “within five years, attract 20 famous international hotel management groups, and make the number of five star, international-standard resorts rise to 60 or more”, provincial tourism bureau head Zhang Qi said last month.

But efforts so far have been a little hit and miss.

A television commercial in English for Hainan looks good -- except the narrator manages to pronounce the island’s name more like “Henan”, a gritty inland province better known for being a major source of migrant workers.

Hainan has a much looser visa regime than the rest of China, especially for tour groups, yet individual European and American tourists still need to apply for a Chinese visa in advance, whereas in Thailand they get entry upon arrival.

Sanya has a large airport, complete with a new international terminal rather bizarrely topped with two enormous pineapples, though flights are limited mainly to domestic destinations.

“You can’t find an airline ticket Thursday, Friday and Saturday, over the weekend,” said Goget. “So we have equipment issues and scheduling issues.”

Tourists say they love the scenery, the sea, the weather and the beaches. Some add, though, that Sanya is a little boring.

“There’s no character here compared to going to Thailand,” said American tourist Koca Wen. “There’s a huge lack of energy.”

Still, the potentially huge Chinese market is a major draw for the resorts, which hope to leverage on the millions of people who have benefited from the country’s economic boom and are increasingly adopting Western lifestyles and aspirations.

“Some of the estimates I’ve seen suggest 450 million middle class Chinese in 10 years from now,” said the Banyan Tree’s Pedersen. “I think Sanya has a huge potential.”

($1=6.982 Yuan)

(Additional reporting by Kitty Bu, and John Ruwitch in Haikou;)

Editing by Miral Fahmy