HAINAN ISLAND, CHINA. I’m on the other side of the world sitting across a dinner table from Tony Le Jun Jiang, winner of the 2006 Mr. China competition and second runner-up in the 2007 Mr. World contest. He glosses over his pageant wins and launches into an ardent dissertation about the merits of Hainan and, in particular, the resort town of Sanya, a burgeoning vacation enclave on the island’s south coast. Apart from his body beautiful pursuits, Jiang heads up Naka Consulting, a Shanghai-based firm specializing in hospitality development throughout the Peoples Republic of China, hence his interest in the town on the edge of the South China Sea whose reputation as a holiday hot spot is rapidly growing. “Sanya is definitely China’s Hawaii,“ he says.

Certainly on the island and among its promoters this comparison to hula land has become a popular catch phrase that isn’t far off base since Sanya, in fact, lies on the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands. A number of likenesses includes a similar climate, swaying coconut palms, tropical flowers, a long stretch of beach not terribly different from Waikiki, plus a cluster of resort hotels. Mainland Chinese tourists show they are buying into the Hawaii connection by wearing flowered shirts that look like they came from a store on Maui but are actually made in China and widely sold on the island.

Moreover, Chinese nationals are not the only ones attracted to the sunny resort mecca a one hour flight from Hong Kong. It has already found favour with Russian and Korean vacationers who have discovered Sanya is a viable alternative to Bali, Fiji and Thailand. Although it’s largely unknown in the Western world, Kenny Wong, owner of Vancouver-based Meridian Holidays believes it’s only a matter of time until the destination catches the attention of North Americans.

Kanako Nakajimo, Naka Consulting‘s executive director agrees. “In the next five years China will show it’s a rising star among world travellers looking for new destinations and Sanya will be in the top five venues in the country,” she says. As dinner conversation with Jiang and Nakajimo unfolds, globally transmitting TV cameras at a theatre a mile down the road are capturing the Dec. 1st finale of the 2007 Miss World contest. “Hosting high-profile events like this will help make Sanya a well known tourist destination,“ says Jiang.
Hainan is China’s most southerly province where the seaside resort city enjoys an annual average temperature of 77 degrees F and while more than half of the country’s mainland cities suffer from air pollution, the island’s air quality received an excellent report card following a 1995 evaluation undertaken by the World Health Organization.

Francois Beland, a Quebecer working on the island for Hainan Ananda International Travel Service Company, is sold on the place and says Sanya is a tropical paradise that’s like Hawaii with a Chinese twist. The most obvious twist is cultural attractions like silk shops where visitors can purchase top quality items and learn about the silk-making process the Chinese mastered many centuries ago. “There are also plenty of teahouses where the public can participate in tea ceremonies that represent thousands of years of tradition,“ says Beland. The teahouses are a tea drinkers nirvana where products for sale typically include a vast array of exotic blends in beautifully crafted decorator boxes.

“Not unexpectedly, gastronomy is also part of the Chinese twist,” he says. “Although visitors can get international cuisines, the Chinese food here is wonderful and cheap.” Popular are multi-course meals featuring chicken, beef, pork, seafood from the South China Sea, together with locally grown vegetables and tropical fruits.

Hainan is well known for its cuisine since certain dishes created on the island have won a number of culinary competitions.

Beyond tea, silk and gastronomy, one of the most glaring cultural twists is the contradiction between Sanya’s resort strip and the life that unfolds just beyond it. Less than a mile from the big name hotels and tourists frolicking on the beach, the resort area is flanked by acres and acres of rice paddy fields where farmers cultivate their crops and continue the long-standing tradition of using water buffalo to till the sodden earth. Yet despite the Hawaii-like holiday haven that has sprung up on their doorstep, life among local farmers appears to be unfolding as it has for hundreds of years.

For the present, at least, rice farmers seemingly remain oblivious to the ongoing changes that have occurred around them including the development of two world class golf courses, Yalong Bay Golf Resort and Sun Valley Golf Club. Minutes from the resort area, both are flanked by forest-clad mountains and each of their exceptional 18-hole layouts is capable of hosting international pro tournaments. They are, in fact, comparable to some of Hawaii’s renowned links and in both cases their clubhouses are grand, five-star mausoleums featuring marble floors, sweeping staircases, fountains and upscale dining rooms.

Moreover, Sanya area activities go well beyond golf. For instance, the nearby mountains provide various venues for rock climbing and hiking and Beland’s company will even arrange an overnight stay in the mountain wilderness. Natural hot springs bubble all over the island where visitors can soak in mineral-rich waters said to have curative properties. Some of the springs also have what is called a “nibble fish” pool where small Gara rufa fish (also known as Doctor fish) will nibble away at the dead skin on a human body. “It’s a very different kind of exfoliation,” says Beland. Other features of the Sanya area include a large cultural village, tropical forest tours, a Buddhist cultural centre, river rafting, sport fishing and scuba diving over red coral reefs.

In fact, with the exception of hula dancers and beach luaus, Sanya pretty much mirrors Hawaii’s tropical paradise. “There are a few differences that mostly reflect the Chinese culture but that makes the destination even more special,” says Jiang.


Documents: Both a valid passport good for at least six months before expiry date and a Chinese Visa are required to visit Sanya. Information: See www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanya and www.en.sanyatour.com

Donna Carter is a freelance writer based in Cobourg, Ontario.

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