Hainan travel guide

The smallest and southernmost province of China is not actually a small island. In fact, Hainan is almost the same size as neighboring Taiwan and much bigger than the Hawaii archipelago, all three islands lying along the same northern latitudes of the tropics. Despite its size and the seeming variety of attractions and activities it offers, the island is not placed well in the tourism map. Perhaps, it is due to this impression of China that is all historical and industrial, and as such, a tropical paradise fringed with palm trees is totally un-China. However, the Hainanese officials are bent into dispelling that notion, and in fact, they have tagged Hainan as the “Hawaii of China”.

For hundreds of years, Hai Nan Dao or Hainan Island was the penal colony for intractable government officials and was even dubbed as the “gates of hell”. The name literally means “south of the ocean” which evoked a semblance of remoteness and nothingness. The goal of shaking up the impression that nothing can be seen in Hainan is complemented by the blistering pace of erecting skyscrapers for hotels, residences and offices in the cities. But wait, isn’t that typical of the rest of China? Upon closer inspection, though, is the more laidback attitude of the Hainanese people, a good number of them wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip flops. To a certain degree, you might even feel that Hainan has this Indochina vibe to it, and that is not out of place, as the island sits just right across northern Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Two cities stand out prominently in Hainan–Haikou, the economic and administrative capital situated north of the island, and Sanya, the tourism and economic center of the south. A big number of the province’s close to nine million inhabitants live in both cities. Even with more than two million residents, Haikou does not have an urban sprawl and congested urban areas are abruptly punctuated by rice paddies at the city limits. This setup makes Hainan a perfect travel spot with wide open spaces in the hinterlands laid out with rolling hills and bordered with long white sand beaches. As a matter of fact, almost 80% of the island’s income is derived from tourism and travel-related industries. With such a staggering ratio, it seems quite baffling that the rest of the world has not caught up with the Hainan frenzy. Perhaps the reason is out of the 20 million tourists who flocked to Hainan in 2011, only less than one million were foreigners, most of them from Japan, Russia and South Korea.

The clout of the huge number of domestic tourists cannot be ignored as they are the product of China’s rapid industrialization, people descending to the island carrying wads of cash ready to pump in more money to the province. With extra money to spend on a second home, many mainlanders buy apartments in the high rises of Haikou, Sanya and other surrounding cities and make them their homes when the rest of China is snow-bound during the winter. At night, several condominiums do not have a single window lit up because all of their occupants are in the mainland. This worries tourism officials and in an effort to make the cities and resorts livelier and more cosmopolitan, aggressive international promotion is conducted such as business expos, beauty pageants and Ironman triathlon events. Nowadays, some travel agencies in Europe and North America host luxury packages to Hainan alongside trips to Cancun and Maldives. High-end hotels and resorts have begun setting up their enterprise in Hainan such as Ritz-Carlton, Banyan Tree, Shangri-La, Marriott, Hilton and Sheraton hotels.

In an area around 34,000 square kilometers (13,100 square miles) there are lots of attractions to see in Hainan, and five days would not be enough just to see the major sights. While many tourists swear that nothing much can be seen in Haikou and that Sanya is the place to go, there are still towns that dot the landscape in between. Head to Wenchang, the birthplace of the world-famous chicken dish and its variant the Hainanese Chicken, to walk in quaint pathways and glorious shorelines. Here, especially during the low season, beaches are not crowded and at times you may find yourself owning the whole stretch. A bit further inland is the Dongjiao Yelin Coconut Plantation, the epicenter of coconut production in China. Every year in late March or early April the Hainanese hold the ‘Coconut Festival’ where exhibitions on coconut recipes and handicrafts are held.

Down the east coast is a line-up of stunning coconut-fringed beaches, headlands and extensive bays and inlets surrounded with charming towns. Getting here could sometimes prove to be a chore, but once you reach these small towns, the journey will be worth compensated. Ride around a motorbike taxi to reach the beaches, particularly gorgeous Shimei Bay which has yet to be reached by commercialization.

Further down is the Jianfengling Nature Reserve, an upland tropical jungle 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Sanya. The reserve is home to hundreds of flora and fauna species that serves as a respite to the beach-like atmosphere of Sanya. Still inland is the central highlands, a region different from the rest of Hainan with less tropical climate all year round and home to the Li ethnic group, one of two major ethnic groups in Hainan, the other being the Min group of the north. The center of the mountains is the small city of Wuzhishan or Tongshi, a perfect upland hideaway to see the highest peak on the island, Wuzhi Mountain.

Yes, beaches could probably be the reason why you have flown down to Hainan, and with 750 kilometers (470 miles) of circumference, it is a guarantee you will be satisfied. Be informed, though, that most of the popular beaches in Hainan are the luxury type, offering lavish accommodations and activities–Dadonghai, the crescent beach near Sanya; Perfume Bay located 90 kilometers to the east of the city; and Yalong Bay, considered as the Chinese Riviera. Of course, with enough time allowance, you will find reasonable accommodations and still enjoy the white sand beaches of Sanya, particularly at Dadonghai and Perfume Bay.

Other noteworthy attractions in Hainan are the exciting Monkey Island, the luxurious and artificial Phoenix Island, the hanging Luobi Caves, the brand new Nanshan Temple, the romantic Luhuitou Peninsula, the diverse Wuzhizhou Island, the largest mangrove forest in Dongzhai Harbor Mangrove and the varied theme parks of the Nanshan Culture Tourism Zone.

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