Almost anything is always easier said than done.
That’s the case in southern tropical island province of Hainan where the government and the undeveloped tourism industry have ambitious plans for turning it into the Chinese equivalent of Indonesia’s Bali, Thailand’s Phuket or South Korea’s Jeju island.
They received the green light from Beijing in April when the State Council approved a proposal from the Hainan government to ramp up the island’s efforts to become an “international-standard island resort”, by allowing the local government to make changes to attract more foreign visitors.
Beijing for the first time, agreed to set up a duty-free shop in each of Hainan’s four cities including the provincial capital Haikou, the well-established tourism spot Sanya, and in Qionghai and Wanning, to cater to foreigners.
It also agreed to consider expanding Hainan’s unique 15-day, visa-free tourism policy approved in 2002 for 21 nations – now including the United States, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand – to five more countries. The new no-visa-needed candidates are Finland, Norway, Sweden, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
In addition to a history of preferential government treatment, Hainan does not lack natural charm. Among its attributes is yearlong warm weather, clean air (a rarity in China) a 1,528-km-long coastline and stretches of pristine white sand beaches and tropical plants, especially coconut trees, which gives Hainan confidence in aiming high.
But, gaining a global reputation requires far more than that. You need a plan and the Hainan government has a grand one.
Within five years, Hainan will be synonymous with the phrase “the oriental paradise holiday resort” in the minds of international travelers, say its promoters. By 2013, the inbound tourists are expected to exceed 1.5 million, and the yearly revenues from the tourism sector will hit $1 billion, respectively rising from $302 million in 2007.
And by 2020, Hainan will top the list of “international island tourism destinations”, and by then, the number of annual overseas tourists and industrial revenues will surpass 5 million and $3.5 billion, respectively.
But some experts paint a less rosy picture. They say except for the hospitality sector which is taking shape, Hainan’s tourism industry is far from mature and characterized by underdeveloped scenic spots, low-quality service, dull and simple tourism tour packages, and a shabby shopping environment – especially compared to its better known Asian resort would-be rivals.
It is also why the tourism industry in Hainan is still weak and a small contributor to the regional economy.
In 2007, despite years of growth, the revenues from the industry account for 14 percent of Hainan’s GDP.
But comparatively, Bali, whose land area and population respectively is less than 20 and 40 percent of Hainan’s, attracted 1.5 million tourists and recorded revenues worth $2 billion, altogether a 50 percent contribution to its local GDP.
From zero to a national brand
Hainan was among the first five officially approved special economic zones.
It was approved in April 13, 1988, the same day when Hainan province was officially established. It is the largest of its kind by area, and has been given the most preferential policies by the central government.
But the region’s economic development had been experiencing twists and turns led by the real estate market decline from the early 1990s, until 1996 when the local government woke up to the fact and decided to shift its focus on three major businesses – new industry, agriculture and tourism, by making better use of its regional advantages.
That marked the kick-off of its tourism industry, which – though small – has been growing rapidly. From 1988 to 2007, the province has hosted 1.43 billion visitors who in total have spent 121.3 billion yuan ($17.39 billion). In 2007 alone, it received 18.5 million visitors and generated revenues of 17.14 billion yuan, which is respectively 16 and 60 times greater than 1988.
In 2002, the central government also approved Hainan’s visa-free tourism policy.
This was followed by news in March 2003 when the Civil Aviation Administration of China agreed to take Hainan on trial for opening a third, fourth and fifth air traffic route which would allow international airline operators to apply to fly there.
In the past eight years, the number of international airlines flying to Hainan has grown from none to 44 from 20-odd nations.
Li Xinjian, a professor from School of Tourism Management at Beijing International Studies University says: “Hainan has the rich tourism resources needed to become an international resort, and the government’s preferential policies can also help it achieve the goal more easily – especially for the convenience of foreign tourists.”
But it’s not enough, says Li, who adds Hainan “needs to develop more attractive tourism products, and more quality services to show its best face to the outside world. Otherwise it risks tarnishing its reputation, something that is equally, if not more important, than any of its other qualities.”
Undoubtedly, Hainan is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China.
But it is overshadowed when compared to other mainland resorts. In 2007, Hainan ranked 22 in terms of the annual revenues generating from the tourism industry, 17.14 billion yuan. It lagged far behind that of the top three – Jiangsu and Guangdong provinces and Beijing, respectively standing at around 282.7 billion, 245.4 billion and 210.3 billion yuan.
Hainan’s new plan also includes opening up new scenic destinations by separating the region into six tourism districts including not only the already well-known ones such as Sanya and Haikou, but also Shimeiwan, Wuzhishan, Jianfengling and Xishahaiyang, to tailor for various needs of the travelers.
More professional training for the local guides is another priority. It is estimated there are 7,000 guides in the southern province, but only 600 can speak foreign languages, which is far from enough especially considering the plans for a flood of new foreign visitors.