Solomon Elusoji, who recently joined a group to visit Sanya in Hainan, China’s southernmost province, writes about the big ambitions of Chinese tourism

We start to see the world in a different light as soon as we get off the feiji at Sanya’s Phoneix International Airport. Although the sun can no more be seen, the air is warm, the skies are blue and clear. The group warms to this as jackets go off and smiles crowd out the twinge of winter. During the very short walk from the terminal to the bus park, I lose count of the number of relieved sighs.

What moves past us through the windows, as we drive towards the hotel, is an endless stream of picturesque hills, small streams and green fields. Then there is the South China Sea – blue waters that stretched the imagination eastwards, far beyond the horizon.

The hotel comes too quickly. It is a giant building with fat pillars, a sprawling lobby fitted with polished floors and a domed ceiling. Most of the rooms have a view of the ocean, which is separated from the building only by a brief thatch of green vegetation.

We have a quick buffet dinner – crabs, squids, vegetables, roasted duck, rice, all sort of things – and eight from the group wander past the green vegetation and towards the beach. It is dark. Distant skyscrapers glimmer in the distance. The waters charge towards us like a bull, then retreat. We step on it, into it, tease it. There is no music but that does not stop our dance. We shout into the void.

Walking along the beach’s coast, we encounter several couples dressed in wedding clothes taking photographs. The photographers have big cameras and those umbrella-like things professional photo-men carry around to help them control the vicissitudes of light. We also walk past men seating on the sand, holding the end of a fishing hook.

The next morning, we are driven to another hotel in Sanya, MGM Grand, to attend the Boao Forum’s Media Leaders Summit for Asia. Like meetings of this kind, it is a bland affair consisting of delegates who give speeches about how important it is for media across Asia to cooperate for the region’s economic growth and political stability.

The Summit is followed by a trip back to our resident hotel, then lunch, before we are ushered out to meet with Sanya City officials and then have dinner with the Vice Mayor of the Sanya Municipal Government, Mr. Wang Tieming.

Welcome to Sanya in Hainan

Sanya on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province, is known as the Hawaii of China. In 2017, the city made the New York Times’ top 52 places to visit in the world, where it was described as a destination with “stunning white sand beaches and shimmering blue waters.”

In Sanya, the array of international hotels is stunning. St. Regis, MGM hotels and Hilton lie on a stretch of white-sand beach on Yalong Bay. Elsewhere in town, Hyatt, Westin, Shangri-La, Four Points by Sheraton, and other prominent chains have built properties.

There is also no shortage of things to do, from water sports to taking a walk in the avalanche of nature parks that dot the city.

Once home to small time farmers and fishermen, Hainan’s explosive growth has been largely fuelled by desire from China’s central government to make it an international tourism destination. During the 1990s, the Chinese government designated the island as one of the country’s “special economic zones”, prompting property speculators to flock there. In December 2009, China’s State Council, which is the country’s cabinet, issued a memorandum that noted Hainan had been designated a “test case” in developing an “internationally competitive destination.” In April, this year, President Xi Jinping announced that the government had decided to build the whole of Hainan Island into a pilot international free trade zone.

One major method through which the government has pushed tourism in Hainan is through infrastructure development. A high-speed railway that zips around the island was completed in 2015 and the Sanya Airport is a stunning, modern edifice that facilitates flights between 136 domestic and 23 international airlines. The road network is also first class, allowing visitors move around hitch-free.

But, like all fairy-tales, Hainan’s story is not without its problems. The Island has seen an astronomical rise in property prices, a phenomenon that has seen locals priced out of the market, leading to criticism from several quarters in China, including from editors of the People’s Daily, a government run newspaper. “How can we create a stable and harmonious living environment if the island’s ordinary residents do not have the ability to buy housing?” the editors have written.

There is also the continuous battle with ecological deterioration, water pollution and construction chaos, problems which have been aggravated by the Province’s exploding population. For example, population in Sanya city was 300,000 in 1988. By 2016, the figure had doubled.

Meanwhile, as more investments flow in, city officials are keen to attract more foreign visitors to Sanya. In 2015, tourist arrivals in Sanya neared 15 million, almost 70 per cent more than five years earlier and revenues from tourism businesses more than doubled over that time to $4.5 billion. But 98 per cent of visitors to the island were Chinese.

Keeping in touch with nature

The sun is up again, working its way from the east. It is our second morning in Sanya and we are on the bus, heading towards the Baopoling ecological restoration project. The scenery along the road is stunning; coconut trees splay lazily in the early light, green hills rear their heads across sloping landmarks and the road itself, smooth and sleek, snakes through tunnels.

Baopoling is a small town in Sanya that lies just off the G98 Hainan Expressway. The terrain is bumpy and surrounded by green mountains. The ecological restoration project we are visiting is a lush green mountain that sits just beside a cement factory. Mr. Xing Yuting, an Environmental Engineer at the site, tells us that the mountain, which has been mined for decades for limestone, used to be bare, without any earth, until the government decided to restore it through a three-year project expected to gulp up to $20 million.

Already in its second year, the mountain’s green mini-forest is evidence of remarkable progress.

While Xing speaks and we listen under the mild but bright sun at the foot of the mountain, irrigation pumps, which are powered by energy from solar panels, spray water across the massive hump. Several animals, Xing explains, have also been transplanted into the ecosystem.

“The mountain, after the three-year project, is expected to serve as a tourist site and is an indication of how governments in China, both central and regional, are focused on preserving the environment,” Xing tells us.

China’s most beautiful village?

Later in the day, we are driven to Zhongliao Village, a model for poverty relief efforts in Sanya. China has set itself a target to eliminate poverty by 2020 and Zhongliao has emerged as one of the country’s most fascinating success stories in recent times.

Zhongliao, which is about 18 kilometres from Sanya’s city centre, was, some few years back, just a small, agriculture-based village. But, in October 2015, a project to renovate the village was launched. The aim was to build basic facilities for receiving tourists.

The project, which included the construction of a trail around the village lake, linking the village to nearby highways, and rezoning orchards and farms – was completed in early February 2016, just days before the Spring Festival, China’s most widely celebrated traditional moment.

That 2016 Spring Festival, the reborn village was open to tourists “and visitors were welcomed by the lake and ponds brimming with blossoming lotuses, rose gardens and various orchards, local fruits and food, as well as the characteristic hospitality of the Li ethnic people,” China Daily’s Zhao Shijun wrote in 2016.

Since then, tourists have flicked to Zhongliao to experience its beautiful, rustic magnificence, leading to the locals becoming richer as the need to open more catering facilities, inns, restaurants and cafes arose. Before the tourism initiative, the average local earned about 30,000 to 40,000 RMB per year. That figure has now more than tripled to between 120,000 and 150,000 RMB.

At the mouth of the village, community leaders welcome us with warm smiles. A set of battery powered, windowless but roofed cart-like vehicles ferry us into the community noiselessly. Villagers tending their stalls wave as our convoy sidles past. We stop at a river and a music performance by villagers standing on canoes ensues before we are ushered through a field of vegetables, where some of the locals are currently engaged, tending to the soil. On the farm, there is a residence tent that tourists can rent for a night. The space is neat and retrofitted with modern conveniences.

It is not difficult to understand why tourists come to Zhongliao. The village’s natural design, tweaked by man, is simply refreshing. Away from the pollution that chokes large cities like Beijing and Shanghai, for most Chinese, Zhongliao is Eden, a perfect garden transplanted from the beginning of time.

Exploring the island

Our third morning in Sanya is spent at the Binglanggu tourist site, a commodious space packed with several historical and artistic museum-like spaces, a life-sized theatre set, restaurants, and multitudes of souvenir shops.

The first thing we do is to learn a new word, ‘Bolong’, which is a versatile form of goodwill greeting used by the locals, who are mainly from the Li ethnic group, one of China’s most prominent minorities.

We spend several minutes at the museum-like spaces, admiring Chinese textile, woodcraft and clay art. One of the most fascinating artefacts on display is a vertically hung dragon quilt, which is described as the “largest dragon quilt of the Li nationality in the world.” At 129cm wide, 284cm long and total area of 36,636 square centimetres, our guide tells us the fabric took several years to make.

Then we are treated to a one hour-long folk theatre performance of the Li people featuring dance, music and drama. There is fire, water, wood, rice, boys and girls swaying to the rhythm of drums, tree climbing and love. One of the drama pieces is about a tradition where lovers demonstrate the intensity of their love through pinching. The more the pinch hurts the pinched, the more the pincher is believed to love. One of the actresses, fair and light, steps off the stage and begins to pinch audience in the first row at the ears. When she reaches me, she stoops and then pinches, but it does not hurt.

Our last stop in Sanya is the Hainan Tropical Ocean University, where we met with the school’s officials and some of their African students. I scan curiously to find a Nigerian, since ‘we’ are purported to be ‘everywhere’, but there is none. I enquire from one of the School’s Directors present at the meeting, Dr. Wei Jing and she confirms they actually do not have a Nigerian. “But we welcome Nigerians,” she tells me. “Tell them about us.”

It’s a new university, with a proper history that starts from 2006, but it already has a relatively large number of African students, mostly from Cape Verde and Comoros Island. The school’s first African graduate is Waldir Soares, a six-plus-foot Cape Verdean who now teaches kids how to play basketball on the island and speaks with an American twang. When I ask him what he felt was the most amazing thing about Sanya, about Hainan, about China, he pauses for only a brief moment. “Safety,” he tells me. “This country is really safe, man.”