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China's Surprising Tropical Resort : Development is slowly luring tourists back to the beaches of Hainan Island.

March 22, 1992|JOAN ARAGONE | Aragone is a San Francisco-based free-lance writer/editor who lived in China for three years

HAINAN ISLAND, China — As the 40-minute flight from Guangzhou cut through the clouds and began its descent to Haikou Airport, at the northern tip of Hainan Island, we could see new high-rises protruding over rice fields and tumbledown shacks. Lush fields and ribbons of beach lined both sides of the small city below. We were approaching Haikou, capital of Hainan, China's newest province.

It took an effort to remember that this was China. Azure water lapped the edges of the land. Visible from the air were palm-fringed bays and hills covered with forests.

Hainan, an island slightly larger than Belgium, today is known as China's tropical paradise. But more than 1,000 years ago, a Tang Dynasty poet called it "the gate of hell."

The poet wasn't thinking of the island's topography, which hasn't changed much over the centuries, so much as its primitive living conditions and isolation. Thirty miles off the south coast of China, Hainan Island for centuries has been a backwater--cut off from the economic and intellectual forces that shaped the mainland. Court officials from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) were banished there.

In the 1940s, the island was invaded by the Japanese. During the civil war between the Kuomingtang and the Communists, Communist forces sought refuge among the Li and Miao minorities who occupy the central mountains.

After 1949, Chinese immigrants from Malaysia and Indonesia settled on the island's east coast, joined in recent years by Chinese from Vietnam. Yet Hainan, which translates in English as "south sea," remains an outpost. Reflecting that isolation, one of its beaches is called "the ends of the earth."

Still, the economic changes that have swept through China in the past decade have indeed reached its southern tip. Realizing the potential for foreign currency in the island's rich natural resources and scenic beauty, the government in 1987 made Hainan--which has a population of 6.3 million--China's newest province. The following year, Hainan was declared one of the country's five special economic zones. Lured by tax breaks and other economic incentives, foreign investors began to build hotels and office buildings and expand manufacturing and agriculture.

But the government's crackdown in Tian An Men Square in June, 1989, put a halt to Hainan's burgeoning development. Most foreign investment was suspended during the last half of that year. And, according to the Hainan Provincial Tourism Bureau, tourism to the island in 1989 dropped by almost 20% from 1988.

Since then, investment has slowly returned and tourism is undergoing what the Chinese media call a "recovery." By the end of 1990, the Hainan Provincial Tourism Bureau said that the number of tourists visiting Hainan--mostly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao--was approaching 1988 levels.

The bulk of economic development and construction is apparent in Haikou, where high-rise hotels are sprouting near one-story shacks. The island's west coast, off limits to foreigners, is dotted with naval installations. On the south and east coasts, the focus is on natural resource development.

But for most tourists, a trip to Hainan means Sanya, the port city at the island's southern tip where beaches are long and empty and the sea is clear.

Except for the signs in Chinese and the presence of a naval station, Sanya could be a provincial town in the Philippines, which lies to the east, or Vietnam, to the west. The people, predominantly of the Li minority, are slim and small-boned, a different physical type than the Han Chinese, who represent more than 95% of the Chinese population. Sailors from the local naval station, in snappy bell-bottomed uniforms and blue and white caps, stroll everywhere.

Sanya's wide main street is filled with bus and pedicab traffic. Buses chug. Horns blast. Rock and disco music vibrates from loudspeakers. Street stalls offer clothing and cotton fabric. At a huge daily open market in the town center, you can buy ducks in bamboo cages, vegetables, herbs, guitars and a thousand household items. A flotilla of fishing boats and old navy vessels sits in the harbor.

The adventure of visiting Sanya starts right away at the bus station or airport, where a mob of pedicab drivers offer rides to the local hotels. The motorized pedicabs are a fast introduction to the unruly atmosphere of this relatively small (by Chinese standards) city of 200,000. The pedicab ride is a bumpy, open-air race past buses, cars and other pedicabs, with horns constantly blaring, all for about $1.25. It's great fun. Just hold on to your hat . . . and your luggage.

Sanya's main draw is its beaches, the best of which lie east of town, along a renovated road that reflects the island's revamping. Less than three years ago, this national highway was a rutted two-lane road winding past small shacks in banana groves. Now paved and smoothed and dotted with shops, it shoots past hotels at various stages of development.

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