Pacific playground: is Hainan the next big thing in luxury tourism?
Described as the Hawaii of China or even the new Monaco, this tropical island is living up to its reputation as the luxury destination of choice. We discover why it’s such a well-kept secret
When it comes to planning your next desert island getaway it could be all too easy to opt, yet again, for The Maldives, Bora Bora or The Seychelles. Why not take a (gold) leaf out of Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s book and consider Hainan? China’s smallest and southernmost province, Hainan is made up of more than 200 islands, known as ‘the Hawaii of China’ and a hub for impressive five-star resorts, golfing and the silkiest white sandy beaches.
Ma was spotted playing golf at Hainan’s Sun Valley Golf Resort in February 2021 and is thought to have spent three months enjoying downtime on the island in complete privacy. If we were to tell you Hainan has unparalleled luxury shopping, surfing, yachting, world-class restaurants and year-round sunshine, you might begin to believe the hype.
Where you need to focus your attention is the 12,700sqm Hainan Island, specifically the city of Sanya – home to several bays hugged by luxury beach resorts. Yalong Bay, for example, is known for upscale hotels, while Wuzhizhou Island offers up stunning coral reefs for scuba diving, surfing and other water sports.
Caroline Donaldson-Sinclair, PR consultant and founder of 802 PR, a boutique PR company specialising in destination profiling, growth and promotion, predicts Sanya is on a trajectory to join the same elite circles as Monaco and Dubai. “As a billionaire’s tropical playground, it has everything going for it,” she says. “A splendid yacht club, beautiful beaches and of course a glittering array of hotels with all the big names from Four Seasons to Ritz-Carlton and Mandarin Oriental, creating chic and luxurious purpose-built palaces of pleasure.”
An estimated 83million tourists visited Hainan in 2019, according to China Daily, but until recently the majority were domestic visitors. For western travellers this is new and exciting terrain, since the government announced in 2018 that Americans could visit for up to 30 days without a visa. With Hainan Visa Waiver Policy, tourists from the UK can travel visa-free to Hainan Island, with arrangements made by a local travel agent.
Sanya offers faraway visitors a lot more than its rivals, according to Donaldson-Sinclair. “A breathtaking tropical island setting, with rainforest to explore,” she says. “Plus fascinating Chinese cultural, religious and historic sites, the community’s love of nature and pride in Hainan island’s indigenous arts and crafts.”
Phoenix Island, an artificial archipelago with multiple hotels, restaurants, luxury residences and a marina, has already drawn comparisons to Dubai and is connected to the city by a long bridge that’s only open to hotel guests. Maybe it’s the combination of natural beauty and glamorous living that sets Hainan apart.
In 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping designated Hainan as China’s largest free-trade zone opening the island up to exclusive duty free designer shopping. Travel expert and cultural writer Siyuan Meng, who is based in Shanghai, has visited Sanya several times and believes shopping is the island’s golden carrot.
“Since July 2020, Hainan has raised its annual tax-free shopping quota to 100,000 RMB (approx £11,535) per person,” she says. “The duty-free policy has attracted an influx of travellers (mostly domestic), which results in a stronger luxury market locally and therefore we can expect an increased number of premium brands to enter Hainan.”
A luxury shopping paradise it will be, with Hainan’s duty-free sales set to triple to $46.5bn by 2025 and a roll call of the world’s top luxury brands from LVMH to Kering, L’Oréal to Shiseido already present. Patrice Louvet, CEO of Ralph Lauren, told Bloomberg: “Hainan is a strategic priority for us. Every business is looking at it.”
The luxury resorts aren’t missing a beat and refuse to lose guests to CDF, China’s biggest duty- free shopping mall. Last summer The Sanya Edition – one of Hainan’s newest and most exciting resorts – launched its DIORIVIERA pop-up store offering guests access to Dior’s latest collections and a private pool experience.
Elaine Fu, PR director for The Sanya Edition, says while most visitors are attracted to the natural scenery, they also have retail needs. “We created a luxury retail boutique space and art gallery by working with Jinghope Life Aesthetics Community,” she says. “We create regular pop- up experiences by collaborating with luxury brands such as Christian Dior Couture, Fendi and Burberry.”
With the best beaches found at Yalong Bay, Dadonghai, Sanya Bay, Qingshui Bay, Haitang Bay and Shimei Bay the island certainly lives up to its nickname as “the Hawaii of China” – in fact, Hainan and Hawaii are on the same latitude. And Meng says Hainan is already jumping on a resurgence of high-end surf tourism, “thanks to the rising surfing scene there since the pandemic,” which ties into efforts to preserve Hainan’s natural beauty working towards an eco-friendly and sustainable future.
“The surfing boom will continue and make the island an even more appealing tourist spot for travellers from all over the world,” she says.
Stay at The St Regis Sanya Yalong Bay Resort and you’ll get private access to more than 800m of white sandy beach and beautiful coastline, plus a marina and a protected mangrove forest
surround the hotel. “The island of Hainan is often compared to Hawaii because of its tropical climate and beautiful beaches,” says Wonder Wang, communications director at The St. Regis resort.
“It is rapidly gaining distinction as an exclusive tropical playground for the world’s most cosmopolitan travellers. The resort is nestled between the lush forest hills, the Qing Mei River Delta and the Yalong Bay Bank. The average temperature every year is 22-26 ̊C. It’s like spring all year around.” Wang recommends visiting between September and April. “The climate is very pleasant; warm yet not too hot and there’s always a nice breeze wafting around one’s nose.”
Why does Wang think Hainan is so appealing to western visitors? “I truly believe Hainan is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and its natural and cultural attractions as well as the luxury service is a big reason. We have a lot of returning guests, as well as ones that are visiting Hainan for the first time.”
Looking to the sea Sanya’s yachting industry grew in 2020 during the pandemic, with a 28% rise in new yacht registrations, according to the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper. The destination’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean brings with it an abundance of seafood along with traditional Chinese dishes. “You may have tried Hainan chicken rice in Singapore or Malaysia — the dish actually has its origins in Wenchang chicken, which uses Hainan’s native free-range chicken,” says Rosewood Sanya managing director Chiping Xu. Located in Haitang Bay, the ultra-luxurious Rosewood Sanya opened in the summer of 2017.
“Guests can feast on a never-ending supply of seafood here,” adds Xu. “What makes Hainan a truly unique destination is the local culture. Hainan boasts a rich cultural heritage, with three important ethnic minorities, the Li, Miao and Hui, playing a significant role in its colourful history.”
Don’t miss a glimpse of the Guanyin statue standing 38m tall at Nanshan Buddhist Cultural Gardens. It is embellished with 100kg of gold, 120-carats of South African diamonds as well as other jewels such as emeralds, pearls and green jade.
Donaldson-Sinclair recommends aiming even higher. “Start your exploration of the region with a visit to Luhuitou (Deer Looks Back) park,” she says. “Stand atop a mountain with spectacular 360 ̊ views of the coastline and hills. This will give you a real sense of the romantic heart of the people of Hainan.”