May 17, 2006

Exotic China Island Gears Up for British Package Tours

By Tamora Vidaillet

SANYA, China -- It's a toss-up who's going to suffer more from culture shock: the people of Hainan or the beach-mad Britons who have China's southernmost island in their sights.

From the summer of 2007, mass tourism British-style will befall an island dubbed the Hawaii of Asia, although, truth be told, it shares little in common with the American surf and sand paradise besides Chinese tourists' love of donning Hawaiian shirts.

Hainan's southern beaches are superb, with golden sand and clean, blue water stretching as far as the eye can see.

Posh hotels like the Marriott and the Sheraton, venue recently of the Miss World beauty pageant, grace the exclusive Yalong Bay resort. Rooms can cost just $125, a bargain by British standards.

Tourism accounts for at least one-sixth of gross domestic product on an island which made global headlines in 2001 after a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet and was forced to make an emergency landing.

Besides its stretches of golden sand, Hainan also boasts vast expanses of lush green farmland and colorfully clad ethnic minorities like the Li and Miao.

Few would dispute Yalong Bay's capacity to indulge a beachcomber's desire to while away the time, but foreign vacationers say the British could be in for some surprises.

"What you should do is come here for a really relaxing time after mainland China or Hong Kong, but there are a couple of things to beware of," said Jeremy McMullin, a 30-year-old software specialist from Ireland.

Hotel staff are eager but their poor spoken English could be a frustration. Feeling obliged to say hello 15 times on the way to breakfast may be heartwarming at first but soon frays the nerves, McMullin said.

Diving is an option, but be prepared to use sign language to converse with your instructor.

And if a Briton goes red in the face because of the absence of sun cream below factor 25, the shock of a high $70 price tag on a bottle of ordinary Australian wine will soon turn him pale again.


Hainan is a world away from Rochdale, a gritty former mill town near Manchester in northwest England.

But it is a Rochdale-based firm, Airtours, that is about to put Hainan, and key Chinese cities, on the British holiday map.

Airtours, whose only Far Eastern charter destination now is Thailand, says it is giving itself a year to right any wrongs.

It will take lucky Chinese hotel staff to the Caribbean or the Canary Islands to observe the typical British tourist in action.

It will also work with local hotels to ensure they can cater for the full- or half-board British tourist, who is likely to have saved long and hard for the 1,239 pound ($2,330), 14-night trip.

"Predominantly, it's about delivery in the hotel," Steve Barrass, managing director for Airtours, said by telephone.

The Chinese need to get to grips with changing their menus daily. Offerings such as "Fried Froggy" and "Stir-fried Flesh" might also need some tweaking.

"Some food they eat certainly wouldn't be seen as palatable to the British public, like brain or the eyes of the fish," Barrass said.

"Our customers would expect to see what you see on a local Chinese menu -- a Chow Mein or a Fu Yong," he said. By local, of course, Barrass means what you might find in Britain.


Beaches and plush hotels apart, the British vanguard shouldn't expect too much excitement from southern Hainan.

At the nearby resort of Dadong Hai, street stalls dish out fresh seafood while massage parlors blare out cheesy Western pop tunes. Tacky souvenir shops cater largely for Chinese and Russian tourists.

A cluster of bars and eateries on a dingy road offers Western fare and cocktails.

It is a far cry from the atmosphere in Thailand, which attracts far larger numbers of Western tourists every year.

Foreigners made up just 270,000 of Hainan's 15 million or so tourist entries last year, led by South Koreans, Russians, Japanese and other Asians.

Chen Yao, deputy director of the provincial tourism bureau, expects that number to double, at the very least, over the coming five years, but he admits Hainan has a long way to go.

Still, now that the British are on their way, Chen says the language skills and nightlife will follow.