Mark Juddery discovers clean air, white beaches and a fast train on Hainan in the South China Sea.
I'm at a place that appears to be like any other tropical retreat: long sandy beaches, snorkelling, banana boats, fruit platters, sunny golf courses, palm-lined streets and smiling locals greeting you with a humble bow. But there is a major difference. This is Hainan, an island in the South China Sea and the centre of Chinese tourism.
It's official: China's government decreed last year that this is the "International Tourism Island". There has been a multi-pronged focus on tourism development here, mostly in the fast-growing beachside city of Sanya (population 500,000 - tiny by Chinese standards).
More than 30 golf clubs have also been developed around the island, including the world's largest, the 20-square-kilometre Mission Hills Golf Club at Haikou in northern Hainan.
A bullet train, built to transport 18 million passengers across the island each year, is scheduled to open this week. Sanya has practically adopted the Miss World beauty pageant, holding it five times since 2003. This month, Hainan hosted Miss World, three major golf tournaments and the Tour of Hainan cycle race.
The island recently increased its visa waiver to include 26 countries, so going through customs in Sanya is quick and painless. But the question remains: why would Australians make the pilgrimage to Hainan, bypassing all of the perfectly good beaches and golf courses of closer tropical destinations?
Perhaps it becomes clear when you leave the resorts and the beaches, taking a taxi into the chaotic traffic of Sanya where there are bustling restaurants, Mandarin script on every shopfront and the shopkeepers in electronics markets who bargain with you using a large calculator. This is the exciting world of the Orient.
While cities in mainland China are notorious for the air pollution, the locals of Sanya, just one sea away, are justifiably proud of the air quality. It occurs to me that while you do find people smoking in Hainan (even in the rainforest resorts), it seems far less common than in the rest of China.
Hainan's tourism has been affected by the global financial situation; however, this does not seem to have stunted its growth. Real estate prices are rising by 20 per cent each year and Sanya's Haitang Bay is undergoing a multibillion-dollar facelift with seven luxury resorts under construction, including the Mangrove Tree Fairmont Hotel.
The hotel is planned as the world's second seven-star hotel (following Dubai's Burj Al Arab) when it opens next year. Another seven-star resort, Haikou Millennium Hotel, will begin construction on a 33-hectare artificial island in 2012.
Away from all of the beaches, the attractions are even more intriguing. The Nanshan Cultural Park, a Buddhist retreat that's been around for about 1200 years, is a 5000-hectare national park with monuments, temples and forest land. The centrepiece is the 108-metre-high Kuan-yin Bodhisattva statue, constructed out of titanium, which towers over the South China Sea. It is the world's fifth-largest statue (standing slightly taller than the the US's Statue of Liberty). The statue was unveiled in 2005 as the result of a $121 million government project.
Haitang's Wuzhizhou Island provides 1.5 square kilometres of rare vegetation and neat but casual restaurants offering the type of seafood dishes that are common in the Hainan region. It is a prime location for snorkellers and scuba divers, with views of multicoloured tropical fish. Though the island is promoted for its "unspoiled" natural beauty, no sooner do you walk off the boat than you are confronted by the framework of a large hotel. Even here, Hainan's progress continues.
Back on the mainland of Hainan but a little further north, Nanwan Monkey Island (which should more accurately be named Monkey Peninsula) is a popular spot for children - a sanctuary for macaque (spider) monkeys, surrounded by dense rainforest.
The Yanoda Rainforest is a striking 4500-hectare park in which everyone - from the road cleaners to the ice-cream pedlars - greet you with a smiling "Ya-no-da!" accompanied by a distinctive two-finger wave. The development of the rainforest has been boosted with the Chinese government pledging $580 million to transform it into a eco-tourism centre.
Sanya's best postcode (until it is upstaged by Haitang Bay) is Yalong Bay, with two golf clubs and a line of five-star beach resorts. The largest of these resorts is the sprawling, 780-room Horizon Resort & Spa, so huge it's almost impossible to navigate.
Not far from Yalong Bay, is the Forest Park rainforest where the bungalows of Earthly Paradise Bird's Nest Resort are dotted through the forest. This is called a "hotel", though the rooms are separated not by carpeted corridors but by thick greenery and they are accessible not be elevators but by wooden boardwalks.
The simplest rooms, costing about $110, are wooden shacks with canvas roofing and curtains instead of front doors. There is no airconditioning - just the cool mountain air - but the rooms do have bedside lights, a safe, a phone, a bar fridge, Wi-Fi (which circulates throughout the rainforest) and showers. The double beds are covered with mosquito nets, though mosquitoes are rare, and there is 24-hour room service.
On a fine day, the huts have some of the best views in China, with the sight of the rainforest and the city of Sanya in the distance. The Bird's Nest Resort also has larger cabins, which can be reached by hotel buggy or (for the more daring visitors) via a shaky footbridge that rises precariously over the rainforest. These rooms, for about $300 a night, are considerably larger, with a television, a PC and an office centre. They are also closer to the pool and spa, ideal for the luxury traveller.
Mark Juddery travelled courtesy of the Hainan Tourism Development Commission.
China Southern Airlines flies to Sanya for about $1190, to Guangzhou (9hr), then Sanya (85 min). Cathay Pacific has a fare for about $1130 to Hong Kong (9hr), then Sanya (95 min). Fares are low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
The Bird Nest Resort has bungalows from $110 and five-star rooms from $300 a night. See ylwpark.com. At Yalong Bay, the Horizon Resort & Spa has ocean-view rooms from $160 a night. See www.horizonsanya.com.
When to go
The best time to visit is from March to May.