The marketing materials say that Hainan, China’s southernmost island and province, is the country’s equivalent to Hawaii. Following that logic, Sanya, the island’s main resort town, should be a budding Waikiki. The reality doesn’t quite match the hype. A boom in hotel and condo construction has rendered Sanya’s thoroughfares overcrowded and dusty, and the town lacks the glamour and relaxing vibe of the American beach destination.
Still, Sanya’s mild climate, sandy beaches and numerous hotel-resorts are already a draw for Russian and Chinese tourists, as well as a sizable number of Westerners from Hong Kong and China. Sanya hasn’t always had such lofty ambitions. The island was a penal colony during imperial times for officials who fell out of favor with the emperor and remained mostly an agricultural and fishing backwater until 1988, when the region was designated by the Chinese central government as a special economic zone.
Today, Sanya’s accommodations include some of the world’s top hotel brands. There’s also a yacht marina and luxury condo developments, and a reputation for being a playground for China’s rich and famous: Sanya has hosted the Miss World competition five times in the last 10 years. The city of more than half a million received about nine million visitors in 2010, almost three times the amount that came here in 2004, according to the China’s official statistics.