Sanya, China -- Sanya, the southernmost seaside city in China and holiday hub of the island of Hainan, has long drawn Chinese tourists to its clean white sand and year-round balmy conditions. But only recently have luxury hotel chains started to see potential: Within the past 16 months, Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and Banyan Tree have arrived, joining earlier arrivals Intercontinental, Marriott, Hilton and Accor. That's not to mention the Howard Johnson that became Sanya's biggest deluxe hotel when it opened its 1,360 rooms in December.
Local authorities tout Sanya as China's answer to Hawaii, and have borrowed elements from seaside destinations ranging from Thailand's Phuket to Mexico's Cancun to the French city of Cannes -- which inspired a plan, not yet in place, to restrict a beachfront road to bicycles and electric vehicles. 'We're still only at the beginning,' says Tang Sixian, the Sanya Tourism Development Board's deputy director.
Sanya had more than six million visitors last year, 12% more than in 2007 and about 30% more than in 2006, according to the tourism board. The city boasts of being China's 'forever tropical paradise' -- a status many of the Chinese visitors, men and women both, celebrate with tropical garb that might stand as the island's symbol: a loud floral shirt with matching knee-length shorts. For newly rich Chinese, the chance to indulge themselves at a five-star beach resort, while speaking their own language and enjoying familiar comfort food, is a powerful draw.
Ritz-Carlton spokeswoman Vivian Deuschl says the company chose Sanya 'because there are few resort areas in China, and [Sanya] is seen by many in the travel industry as having much of the appeal Bali has had over the years, especially for affluent Asians.' The Mandarin Oriental Sanya is the only property the company manages in mainland China so far, though it's developing projects in Guangzhou and Beijing; its Beijing hotel was to have opened this summer in the China Central Television tower that was ravaged by fire last February. 'Sanya is a very, very tourism-oriented city, and a lot of the big (hotel) names are there,' says the Sanya resort's spokeswoman, Rebecca Hui.
Sanya has proved popular with non-Chinese as well, notably from Russia, South Korea and Japan. Cruise lines added Sanya to their itineraries after the first phase of a passenger terminal, planned to be one of Asia's biggest -- and built on a manmade island created for that purpose -- opened in 2007.
Visitors from outside China do have to work harder to get to Sanya. There are charter flights from Russia (charter flights from England were abandoned after six months for lack of profit), but the only cities outside the mainland with scheduled direct flights are Seoul and Hong Kong. And the weak global economy has pinched the flow of overseas visitors. The number of Korean visitors plummeted during South Korea's recent economic woes. The Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa says its numbers of guests from Russia and the U.S. were each down more than 50% in the first quarter from a year earlier. But many hotels report a rise in Hong Kong visitors, for whom Sanya, just 600 kilometers away, is a reasonable minibreak destination in a tough economy. And the domestic travelers keep coming.
'We could survive easily with the mainland Chinese business,' says Gerd Knaust, general manager of the Mandarin Oriental Sanya. 'It's more than enough.' Hotels were packed during the Chinese New Year holidays in January, for example -- even though some hotels more than tripled their room rates.
Except for Sanya, Hainan isn't renowned as a magnet for tourists. Resembling a teardrop falling away from China's southern coast, the island, slightly smaller than Taiwan, was long known as a place of exile for political troublemakers. Its best-known native son was Charlie Soong, father of the famous Soong sisters, of whom one married Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen and another Gen. Chiang Kai-shek (the third settled for a rich banker). The island hit the news in 2001 when a U.S. spy plane made an emergency landing there after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet. Sanya itself raised its international profile by hosting the Miss World beauty pageant four times over five years starting in 2003.
Sanya's beach culture originated at Dadonghai, a congested strip of sand near the city center. A more recent crop of hotels, mostly Chinese-owned and operated but including a Holiday Inn and a Kempinski, has sprung up on the western outskirts of the city at Sanya Bay, a 20-minute drive from downtown on the road to the airport. But Sanya's grand strand lies half an hour by car to the east of the city at Yalong Bay. The Chinese navy controlled Yalong and kept developers away until the mid-1990s, but now 16 luxury hotels line a sparkling beach. The first was the Hong Kong-managed Gloria, which opened in 1995. International brands, led by Holiday Inn and Sheraton, arrived soon after that. The Ritz-Carlton, which opened in April 2008, was among the last to secure a sea view. But hotels keep going up -- now in a second row, back away from the beach.
In spite of Yalong's popularity, it doesn't feel crowded. Its beachfront hotels have immaculate, landscaped gardens with a commanding view of the waters of sheltered Yalong Bay. At the Marriott, for example, guests ramble amid breadfruit and frangipani trees and photograph one another by an enormous, amoeba-shaped swimming pool. Couples shuffle to the beach in their hotel slippers and Marriott robes, while elderly guests play mah jong on a beach towel at an outdoor bar.
Without Yalong, 'it would be very hard to sell Sanya' as a top-tier destination, says Mr. Tang of the Sanya tourism board. This being China, Sanya's tourism authorities have bigger ambitions. A bay called Haitangwan, farther along the eastern coast toward the city of Boao, boasts a 21-kilometer beach -- several times as long as the one at Yalong. A modern highway connects Sanya with Haitangwan, and an express train link there is to be completed by 2013. The tourism board predicts that Haitangwan will boast some 40 top-end resorts within 20 years. 'Everyone' wants to be there, says Edmund Ko, director of marketing for the Sanya Marriott.
But aside from copious sand and sun, what else does China's 'forever tropical paradise' offer a visitor? Mr. Knaust of the Mandarin Oriental, which opened in January on a secluded, rocky beach just around a headland from Dadonghai, says Sanya 'is not as culturally diverse as Bali.' The Mandarin's solution is to offer as many as three different instructor-led activities each daylight hour -- say, a choice of lessons in scuba, table tennis or cooking mango pudding.
With 11 restaurants and bars and a spa offering treatments ranging from golfer's massage to 'pore-refining' facials, the hotel aims to provides a self-contained experience. Each of its teak-paneled villas comes with butler service, a private infinity pool and a gazebo.
Hainan actually does offer some cultural diversity for visitors. About 1.2 million of the people living on the island are Li, one of the 55 ethnic minority groups officially recognized in China. Most now live in towns and have lost much of their own language and culture, but there are still pockets where the old ways prevail -- or are preserved to some degree for tourists, as at the re-created village at Bing Lang Yuan. Don't be put off by the parking lot full of tour buses and the guides in matching straw hats bellowing into bullhorns. Bing Lang Yuan is a worthwhile theme park of indigenous folkways.
Visitors can explore thatched houses, smoke a bamboo water pipe, listen to folk songs and sample milky-looking rice wine. A well-organized museum about the Li -- a placard calls them 'a living fossil' -- displays pottery, hand-made guns and other artifacts. The museum provides ample information in English, as does another that is devoted to traditional Li brocade clothing (worn by strikingly tall, Western-looking mannequins). Elderly Li women with their people's distinctive spidery blue tattoos on their faces and legs weave garments on simple lap looms and offer them for sale.
The cultural education at Bing Lang Yuan can take a surprising -- and somewhat disturbing -- turn. One day earlier this year, tourists crowded around a tiny pool to hurl bamboo spears at a dozen pitiful catfish, some already floating belly up in 30 centimeters of water. At a nearby shooting range, other visitors fired wooden darts from Li-style crossbows at live birds tethered to the ground.
Visitors to Sanya can also find snorkeling and windsurfing on West Island, off the shores of Sanya Bay, and Wuzhizou Island near Yalong. Sanya has become popular with a small clan of overseas surfers who appreciate the good surf that Hainan's southern coastline typically enjoys every month but April; at Shimei Bay, about 80 kilometers from Sanya, the swells break at heights of up to three meters and peel in long waves. Sanya has hosted at least two international surfing contests.
Getting Chinese to try the sport can be a challenge, says Brendan Sheridan, a 29-year-old American who sells and rents surfboards from a one-room shop near Dadonghai Beach. He recalls persuading one Chinese visitor to take a lesson, only to have her ask if she could take her sun umbrella with her. 'I just laughed,' he says. 'She went out without it and was fine.'
Sanya isn't renowned for its night life, but visitors seeking a change from hotel bars and easy-listening Filipino bands can try the rambunctious dance halls along Yuya Avenue downtown. 'Bar Street,' a block-long stretch of clubs, throbs with music from pop to techno. One of the more distinctive bars, 66, is a Chinese take on a U.S. roadhouse or saloon, furnished with antique bric-a-brac and retro-looking industrial pipes and flywheels.
Still, hoteliers fret that Sanya must do more to diversify its appeal.
'After you've gone to the beach or sat around the pool for a couple of days, there's not enough to do,' says Peter Wise, general manager of Accor's Pullman Sanya Yalong Bay Resort & Spa. Sanya's four golf courses, for instance, can get crowded, especially for tourists who like to play in large groups. More courses are planned, but some hotel managers are urging local tourism officials to think on a grander scale. One suggests Sanya take a cue from Dubai and build an indoor ski slope.
Petty crime also is a problem. Pickpocketing in markets frequented by tourists is 'a headache,' and Sanya needs to at least triple its 1,000-strong police force, says the tourism board's Mr. Tang.
Some foreigners, unused to haggling, grumble that Sanya's taxi drivers and shopkeepers are out to fleece them. 'After two hours, you feel very angry. You cannot relax,' says Yuliya Sergeeva, a lawyer from Moscow. And even the five-star family resorts at Yalong Bay are vulnerable to prostitution. A security guard at the Hilton Sanya Resort & Spa cheerfully offered to procure, for one guest, a woman for the night.
Yet the charms of tropical China are undeniable, and plenty of visitors succumb. Sanya 'surpassed my expectations,' says Australian Chris Marks, an engineering company director who lives and works in Shanghai.
Mr. Marks chuckles as he and his wife and two teenage daughters join a crowd of Chinese boarding a tour bus outside the Holiday Inn Sanya Bay. 'It's supposed to go to some shopping area,' he says. 'But if it doesn't, hey, it'll be an adventure.'
Bruce Stanley is a writer based in Dubai.
三亚是中国最南端的海滨城市，也是海南岛的度假中心。长久以来，这里纯净的白沙滩和四季如春的气候吸引着中国各地的游客纷至沓来。不过一直到最近，各大豪华酒店集团才关注到了三亚的巨大潜力：在过去的16个月里，丽思卡尔顿(Ritz-Carlton)、文华东方(Mandarin Oriental)、悦榕庄(Banyan Tree)姗姗来迟，加入到了先行者万豪(Marriott)、希尔顿(Hilton)和雅高(Accor)的行列中来。这还没算上豪生酒店(Howard Johnson)呢，去年12月，拥有1,360间客房的三亚豪生大酒店隆重开业，成了三亚豪华型酒店中的老大。
丽思卡尔顿集团发言人维维安·道希尔(Vivian Deuschl)说，他们选择了三亚，是“因为中国的度假地很少，在旅游业很多人看来，（三亚）有着跟巴厘岛一样的吸引力，尤其是对于富裕的亚洲人。”三亚文华东方酒店是文华东方集团目前在中国大陆唯一一家酒店。当然集团在广州和北京也正在上马新项目，如果没有今年2月份那场大火，北京文华东方酒店本应于今夏在中央电视台总部大楼开张的。三亚文华东方酒店发言人Rebecca Hui说，“三亚是一个以旅游为主导产业的城市，有很多大酒店在此落户。”
国外的游客到三亚得多费点周章。俄罗斯有包机前往三亚（英国的包机业务在六个月没有盈利之后停运了），不过中国大陆之外有定期直航前往三亚的只有首尔和香港两个地方。全球经济的不景气又使得来自海外的游客数量大大减少。韩国最近遭受了经济危机之后，前往三亚韩国游客数量急剧下降。三亚万豪度假酒店及水疗中心(Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa)称，一季度来自俄罗斯和美国的客人都比去年减少了50%以上。不过很多酒店都表示，与此同时，香港游客却是有增无减。三亚距离香港只有区区600公里，所以对于香港人来说，三亚是经济低迷时期度个小假的理想之地。国内游客则依然是蜂拥而至。
雅高集团下属三亚亚龙湾铂尔曼度假酒店(Pullman Sanya Yalong Bay Resort & Spa)的总经理彼得·怀斯(Peter Wise)说，“你去了海滩、在游泳池边坐了两天之后，可做的事情就不多了。”比如，三亚的四个高尔夫球场经常都会显得很拥挤，特别是在来了些喜欢很多人一起打球的游客时。一些新的球场正在规划之中，不过有些酒店经营者敦促当地旅游当局要考虑扩大球场的规模。有位经营者还提议，向迪拜(Dubai)学习，建一个室内滑雪场。