March 10, 2006

Hainan island hopes to become China’s Phuket

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - No tsunamis, no bombs and no sharks.
Just crystal clear waters, swaying palm trees and white sandy
beaches -- the governor of China's tropical island of Hainan
thinks his province has it all.

Yet last year, even though Hainan attracted more than 15
million visitors who spent at least one night, the province
earned just 12.5 billion yuan ($1.55 billion) from tourism.

By comparison, Thailand's Phuket each year gets around 3
million visitors, but accounts for a third of the country's $8
billion in tourism receipts, according to the World Tourism

"They get far fewer visitors than we do, but earn far
more," Wei Liucheng, Hainan's ebullient governor, told
reporters on the sidelines of China's annual meeting of
parliament on Friday.

"Lots of foreigners go to Southeast Asia, but it's great to
go on holiday here too," said Wei. "It's very safe. There have
been no explosions, no tsunamis and there are no sharks."

The average tourist spent just a day-and-a-half in Hainan,
compared to seven to 10 days for Phuket, he said, and on
average they spent several times more per head.

Last year, less than half a million overseas tourists went
to Hainan -- which touts itself as China's Hawaii -- though
that was up some 40 percent on 2004, according to provincial

And the province did not want unrestrained development, the
governor said, sitting in the Hainan room of the Soviet-era
Great Hall of the People, surrounded by murals of cascading
waves and ethnic minorities hunting deer with bows and arrows.

"Hainan is a very beautiful island, but we are not saying
the more people who visit the better," said Wei. "If we were to
get 40 to 50 million visitors a year, that would have a
terrible effect on the environment.

"We won't restrict the numbers of visitors at the moment,
but we are considering it. We're a small island with a great
environment. Tourists generate so much rubbish," he added.

To that end, the province, which is also a center of
rubber, sugar and banana production, may ban plastic bags, Wei

But foreign tourists who have been to Hainan for a beach
holiday say it still has a long way to go before being able to
give Thailand a run for its money.

"It's very beautiful but there's not much to do compared to
Thailand, like water skiing," said U.S. citizen Karen Fang.

Cultural differences perplex too, in a country where having
a sun tan has traditionally been looked down on as a sign of
hard work under a blazing sky in the fields.

"It's very relaxing, and there's not very many people on
the beach, but you might get stared at if you're in your
bikini," Fang said. "Groups of men -- and women -- would come
up and stare at us."