Beaches and resorts fringe a rainforest hinterland on Hainan, a laidback tropical getaway south of Hong Kong, writes Rachel Browne.
"WHAT is your final destination?" asks Hamid, a China Airlines staff member at the check-in counter. "Sanya," I reply, handing over my bag. Hamid looks puzzled: "Where's that?"
It's a response I was to hear often when I told people I was bound for the seaside resort town on Hainan, an island off the coast of southern China.
Admittedly, Hainan is not exactly top of mind for Australian tourists when it comes to Asian beach destinations. Only about 500 Australians visit the island each year, compared with about 10 million Chinese tourists.
However that is about to change, with the Chinese government making an effort to push the island as an international tourism destination. The question for Australian travellers is: what makes Hainan different from other resort destinations in south-east Asia?
For a start, Hainan has a certain unspoilt charm that it manages to retain despite the large number of multibillion-dollar developments springing up on its coast.
It has been dubbed the Hawaii of the Far East because it shares the same latitude as the American archipelago and, like Hawaii, has a laid-back vibe.
While just 50 kilometres from the Chinese mainland, Hainan doesn't feel much like China at all.
The tea-coloured haze that hangs over many large Chinese cities is not in evidence in Hainan, where the sky is clear and blue.
There's no heavy industry, hence the lack of pollution. Hainan's economy is 30 per cent agriculture and 70 per cent tourism, with locals benefiting from the clean atmosphere by living an average seven years longer than their counterparts on the mainland.
But that's not to say there's no industry. Indeed, much of the city of Sanya and its surrounds resembles a building site as hotels, resorts and luxury apartment complexes go up at breakneck pace. While Sanya has a permanent population of about 500,000, there are 2 million itinerant workers in residence labouring on new developments, which are advertised prominently on roadside billboards.
The new hotels and resorts will accommodate an anticipated influx of tourists in the next decade as authorities ramp up the island's appeal to the international market.
Hainan is already trying to establish itself as a serious international player by hosting high-profile events, most notably the Miss World contest, which has been held in Sanya five times. The island also set the stage for a major road cycling competition, several international golf tournaments and a meeting of political heavyweights including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo. More international events are scheduled next year, including the Mission Hills Golf World Cup in November and the Volvo Ocean Race, which will feature a leg off Sanya.
Tourism authorities are planning permanent attractions, too. A high- speed bullet train linking Sanya in the south to the city of Haikou, about 300 kilometres north, opened last month and there are preparations for a space theme park to open in 2015, along with a couple of eye-poppingly opulent seven-star hotels, an international airport and the world's largest duty-free shop. Work on the world's second-longest bridge, connecting Hainan with mainland China, is expected to begin in 2012.
With such a hive of activity, it's not surprising that property prices are a hot topic of discussion. Ten years ago, you could have bought a nice holiday apartment by the coast for $600 a square metre. Nowadays, you're looking at $6000.
The majority of apartments are owned by wealthy mainlanders who use Hainan as their winter playground. Temperatures in Beijing and Shanghai drop sharply in December and January but Hainan enjoys a year-round average of 26 degrees. The island not only draws mainlanders flying south for the winter but also a large number of Russians, who arrive on charter flights from Moscow and Novosibirisk in their thousands.
The Russian influence in Hainan is noticeable, with signs in tourism areas written in Mandarin, English and Russian. You'll even find borscht on menus alongside traditional Chinese cuisine.
Tourists at the beach resorts around Sanya can be divided into two categories: Chinese in matching Hawaiian outfits and fleshy Russians wearing gold jewellery and peeling skin.
It all lends a certain cosmopolitan atmosphere to the resorts spread along Sanya's coastline: Sanya Bay, Dadonghai Bay and the most exclusive of all, Yalong Bay. Many large waterfront hotels also claim a slice of sand as their own "private beach", furnishing the shore with sun lounges and umbrellas. Pristine beaches are a key attraction, giving Hainan a competitive edge over other Asian resort spots.
While Australians may be underwhelmed by the surf, beaches are impressively well preserved. Not so much as a stray cigarette butt was seen as I walked the length of Dadonghai Bay.
China's environmental record may not be that great but it's green and clean in Hainan, where Sanya's Blue Ocean Protection Plan reminds visitors to pick up any rubbish they find on the beach and ecotourism is promoted heavily.
The island has 595 kilometres of coastline, much of which is undeveloped, so water-based activities are key. There's boating, diving, snorkelling, fishing, beach volleyball and jet-skiing, with all gear available for hire. You can even arrange an underwater wedding ceremony if the mood takes you. Most of the holidaymakers I saw were happy to sunbathe or stretch out on massage tables on the sand, where therapists rub away aches and pains.
Hainan is similar to other Asian beach destinations in that it's one of those places where you can do as little or as much as you want. There's plenty of sightseeing on offer for those who drag themselves away from the beach towel or the restaurants, where a fresh seafood feast will set you back about $10.
The island's biggest tourist attraction is the Kuan-yin Bodhisattva statue in Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone. Poised on a man-made island overlooking the South China Sea, at 108 metres the three-sided titanium statue is 16 metres taller than New York's Statue of Liberty.
Completed in 2005, the imposing figure has attracted millions of visitors to the cultural zone, which also features ornamental gardens, temples and vegetarian restaurants.
Visitors who want to soak up culture as well as sun can discover Hainan's intriguing past on a visit to the ethnic villages of the island's indigenous inhabitants, the Li. They arrived on the island more than 3000 years ago and are congregated around the central and southern parts of Hainan. The women are known for their distinctive, geometric facial and body tattoo art, which continues - albeit in a more subtle form - today. Local inhabitants of a different kind can be seen at Nanwan Monkey Island, a nature reserve established in 1965. It's now home to more than 2000 macaques as well as a variety of birds and native plants.
Given the influx of tourism, much of Hainan remains remarkably untouched, its rugged interior a maze of spectacular, jungle-covered mountains. Natural hot springs abound in the interior and are quickly becoming as popular as beach resorts. Rainforest resorts are nestled discreetly around Seven Fairy Mountain Resort in Baoting County. It's an area reminiscent of Bali's Ubud but without the hordes of tourists and touts.
Perhaps that is ultimately what helps make Hainan stand out from the crowd - compared with Bali, Thailand or, increasingly, Vietnam, it feels quiet and uncrowded. But get there quickly - it won't last.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Hainan Tourism Development Commission.
Hainan Airlines' charter flights between Sydney and Sanya begin in March (global.hnair.com). There will be two flights a month from March to October. Cathay Pacific flies daily from Sydney to Hong Kong, with daily connections to Sanya (cathaypacific.com).
When to go
The temperature in Hainan is warm all year round but it can get very humid in July-August. The best time to visit is from March-May when the weather is clear and humidity low.
At Resort Intime, Dadonghai Bay, guests walk from their rooms through gardens to the resort's slice of private beach. Standard rooms are from 678 yuan ($102) a night. +86 (898) 8821 0888, resortintime.com.
The Mandarin Oriental Sanya has stunning views and is so big, golf buggies are used to transport guests around the resort. The hotel has a slice of private beach, while ocean-front pavilion rooms have private plunge pools with cabanas. The hotel's award-winning spa offers Swedish and Thai massage, aromatherapy services, acupuncture, acupressure and cupping treatments. Hotel rooms are from 2250 ($340) yuan a night. +86 898 8820 9999, mandarinoriental.com/sanya
Crowne Plaza Sanya, Yalong Bay, is based on the design of Beijing's Forbidden City. It also has its own beach, pools and a spa. Crowne Plaza also has a kids' club for under-sevens. Rooms are from 777 yuan a night. +86 898 8855 5888, crowneplaza.com
Narada Resort and Spa, Qixian Mount, Baoting County is a rainforest retreat with rooms and villas. Each villa has an outdoor hot spring bath on a private balcony. Narada's spa menu includes the "kissing fish treatment" in which guests sit in an oversized bath while small fish nibble at their skin. It's not for the squeamish or ticklish. Standard rooms are 688 yuan a night, villas from 838 yuan. chinahotels.org