China’s tropical free-trade zone attracting travellers

This is sponsored content for Hainan Tourism.

Hainan may be billed as the "Hawaii of China", an island surrounded by idyllic tropical beaches where you can bathe under palm fronds, but if you are more into keyboards than surfboards there are still plenty of reasons to visit China's newest business hub.

Last year, Hainan was designated as a free-trade zone by the Chinese government with a special emphasis on encouraging digital innovation. The idea is that this small island, just off the coast of the province of Guangdong, would become a magnet for international tech start-ups with incentives including reduced rents and other financial benefits.

China's other free trade-zones are in Shanghai, Fujian, Tianjin and Guangdong, but it is not just the balmy nights that are drawing foreign investors to Hainan - it is the region's proximity to south-east Asia that is part of the appeal. And it is not only tech start-ups that will be moving in - tourism is also targeted, so expect a number of travel players to head to Hainan in the future to complement the current offerings.

Bonus: to make things easier for travellers and the tech-savvy, you don't need a visa to enter Hainan.

Changing face on Hainan

Hainan means "south of the sea" and its position as the southernmost region of China is the reason for its moderate climate and the access to the warm waters of the South China Sea. These conditions were perfect for agriculture and up until the late 20th century agricultural products accounted for most of the island's economy. There were rice paddies in the low-lying land to the north and a wealth of tropical fruits like lychees, mangoes and pineapples (Hainan is the biggest pineapple producer in China).

But it wasn't long before the Chinese mainland caught on to the palm-fringed island's natural beauty, from the miles of beaches to the mountainous centre of the island dominated by the majestic Wuzhi (Five Finger) Mountain. The base of the mountain, a key symbol of Hainan, splays out into the surrounding jungle like the fingers of a giant hand and it is a popular spot with hikers.

Wuzhi mountain in Hainan.

Wuzhi mountain in Hainan. Photo: Supplied

The area around Wuzhi Mountain is home to the indigenous Li people who first farmed rice here thousands of years ago and they believe that the mountain is the giant fossilised hand of a former Li clan chief; touring the region you can get a feel for traditional Li lifestyle and the traditional folk songs and dances of the region. This preservation of culture is a key draw for tourists to the island and has helped with its growing popularity.

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The island itself has now become a huge draw for travellers with over 76 million domestic and overseas tourists heading to Hainan last year, a jump of nearly 12 per cent on the previous figure. And the future looks even brighter.

A digital future

Sheraton Sanya Bay Resort.

Sheraton Sanya Bay Resort. Photo: Supplied

These are exciting times for Hainan, and the already bustling capital of Haikou, with China's central government giving the region the green light to overhaul the economy and prepare for an even bigger influx of travellers. Locals are excited because they know what support from China's leadership can do. In the early '90s the tiny fishing village of Shenzhen was anointed as a future tech hub - it now boasts over 12 million people and is a key cog of the Chinese economy.

Hainan is no tiny fishing village, though. It is an international tourism destination, home to myriad resorts and international hotels, and it is no stranger to holding large-scale conferences.

Then there are the natural resources like the lush green centre and the famous beaches and offshore tropical islands. Hainan is headed for a perfect blend of an ancient culture looking to a high-tech future, so dive in.

This article has been produced in association with Hainan Tourism.

Direct flights are available from Sydney-Haikou & Melbourne-Haikou. Upon arrival in Haikou, high-speed rail is available for travellers visiting Sanya and other island locations.

For more information on flights visit Hainan Airlines.

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