How did this tropical island become 2012’s hottest travel destination for Southeast Asia? Amy Fabris-Shi reports from ‘China’s Hawaii’
Reclined on a sun lounger looking across a calm azure ocean, Sanya feels like a quintessential Southeast Asian resort. Warm breakers lap the shore, palm trees fringe the scene, peace prevails. It could be Phuket or Bali. Swivel your gaze inland, however, and the legions of tower cranes on the horizon remind you of the high-octane pace of tourism development across Hainan Island, China’s premier resort destination.
Much has changed in Sanya since 100 Miss World contestants frolicked in the Yalong Bay sand in 2003. The pageant was hosted at Sheraton Sanya Resort, the island’s first internationally branded hotel, and provided a boost for Sanya’s sexy image. Nine years later, 15 luxury hotels cluster along Yalong Bay, with 63 additional upscale hotels slated island-wide by 2015. Sanya Phoenix International Airport – one of two airports on the island, with a third planned at Boao – welcomed 10 million arrivals last year. Hainan is officially red-hot.
The island itself – which is about the size of Belgium – sits in the South China Sea off the coast of Guangdong Province, within sight of the Vietnamese coast. The provincial capital of Haikou lies in the sub-tropical north, but the tourism honeypot is Sanya, on the southern tip, which shares a similar latitude as Hawaii; hence the rather disingenuous moniker of Hainan being known as ‘China’s Hawaii’.
Last year, Miss World beauties gave way to the leaders of the world’s five most influential emerging nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – who gathered in Sanya for the 2011 BRICS Leaders Summit; and last month, Sanya was one of 10 stops in the round-the-world 2012 Volvo Ocean Race. An entire ‘Destination Village’ was constructed at Luhuitou Peninsula and a fortnight of activities welcomed the ships ashore. Make no mistake – Hainan has plenty of cash to draw a crowd.
These marquee events are designed to earmark Hainan as an international resort island. According to the Hainan government, the island has ‘embarked on a plan to compete with regional top draws like Bali, Phuket and Boracay by 2020’. Myriad tourism and hospitality investors, as well as management companies, are joining the party.
“In the early 1990s there were limited opportunities to develop new resort hotels in Hainan. It was not easy for us to execute the agreement for the first internationally branded hotel in Sanya in 2003,” says Stephen Ho, senior vice-president of development for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, whose Sheraton Sanya Yalong Bay Resort pioneered the upscale hotel trend. Starwood has five hotels in operation in Hainan, with a further eight under development. “There are more in the pipeline,” adds Ho. “We’ll likely have up to 18 hotels here, making Hainan bigger for us than Hawaii.”
Starwood’s St Regis resort opened in Yalong Bay in November last year, snagging the last sea-front location (see page 68). Reflecting an ever-increasing demand for luxury from mainland Chinese travellers, it offers personal butlers for each guest, an Iridium Spa (one of only three in the world) and a private marina with 150 berths. Guests staying in the 28 beach villas can park their yacht in their own private villa berth and enjoy butler sea valet, private limousine and jet services. Keeping pace, Yalong Bay’s oldest resort, the locally-owned Gloria Hotel, was restyled and reopens this month as MGM Grand, the brand’s first non-casino resort.
With Yalong Bay’s oceanfront at full capacity, the developmental radar has shifted elsewhere along Sanya’s 209km coast. Mandarin Oriental (Coral Bay), Banyan Tree (Luhuitou Bay) and Le Meridien (Shimei Bay) led the diversification charge a couple of years ago. Hyatt is building a 196-room Park Hyatt, a boutique Andaz Resort and branded residences at Sunny Bay on the southern coast. Meanwhile, Raffles, Jumeirah, JW Marriott and Hilton are among 10 resorts opening in Qingshui (Clearwater) Bay. One&Only has also just announced they will open a 180-room resort at Tufu Bay in Sanya in 2014, their first entry into China.
However, Sanya’s most ambitious development is at Haitang Bay. A 90-minute drive along freshly laid highway east of Yalong Bay, the 17km crescent of previously untouched beach and virgin forest is an immense project. Having tested the waters with Yalong Bay, China is staking Hainan’s resort credentials on making Haitang Bay the envy of the region. More than 30 (of the planned 40) resorts have signed to open here, with hoardings already up for Grand Hyatt, InterContinental, Kempinski, Sofitel, Shangri-La, Fairmont, Waldorf-Astoria, Langham and Luxury Collection. Four resorts have already opened their doors, including Conrad, Doubletree by Hilton, Sheraton and Renaissance Sanya Resort and Spa. The latter is China’s first Renaissance resort and features Sanya’s largest swimming pool, largest ballroom, largest presidential suite and highest lobby.
“The development schedule here is mind-blowing,” says Sean Baskett, general manager of Renaissance Sanya Resort. “I’d say in two to three years, once all the top hotel brands are opened here, Haitang Bay is going to be a truly world-class resort destination.”
It’s not just the resorts that define Hainan as a tropical playground for China’s burgeoning jetset class. Sanya aims to become an international yachting hub, recently approving 10 main marinas with a total of 6,000 berths within a decade. In addition, private marinas are mushrooming around the Hainan coast. Hainan Rendez-Vous, a luxury lifestyle showcase of super-yachts and business jets, will host its third annual installment between April 5 and 8 at the Visun Royal Yacht Club. Last year’s event attracted more than 15,000 visitors, with nearly 100 yachts and super-yachts docked along the riverbank. According to organisers, sales were in the ‘RMB several billions’.
If you can’t afford your own maxi, the 13-deck SuperStar Aquarius became the first international cruise line to homeport in Sanya in October, and has started two and three-night voyages between Sanya and the Vietnamese ports of Halong Bay, Danang and Hue.
Back on dry land, golfing and shopping are significant attractions. Hainan counts 24 golf courses, some of which trail through verdant plantations overlooking the coast. Haikou in the north is home to the second Mission Hills golf mega-club, which hosted the Omega Mission Hills World Cup in November. In the city of Sanya, the island’s first government-sanctioned China Duty Free (CDF) mall opened in April last year to pilot duty-free shopping for mainland travellers. This vast mall was an immediate hit with Chinese shoppers who pack coaches from the resorts each morning to snap up luxury duty free goods for the first RMB5,000. CDF Group is now building the world’s largest duty free complex in Haitang Bay, with estimates of ‘US$425m annually’.
Golf and shopping aside, Hainan still needs more entertainment options for families.
“There really isn’t much to do in Sanya beyond beach, golf, shopping and resorts,” admits Starwood’s Stephen Ho. Current attractions – like the Buddhist -themed amusement park Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone, built around the 108-metre tall Guan Yin Buddha of the South Sea statue – generally fail to impress upscale travellers. Sanya City also lacks cutting-edge dining and nightlife. To compensate, resorts tend to incorporate enhanced entertainment options. Renaissance Sanya Resort & Spa, for instance, has its own games arcade complete with a bowling alley, snooker tables and Wii consoles, karaoke rooms and a Brit-style pub, along with the usual lagoon pools and water sports.
All this development is reaping rewards, and fast. Despite the huge increase in hotel room supply, getting a room this winter will be a challenge – and near impossible during peak holidays. Luxury hotels achieved an average 60 percent occupancy in the first three quarters of last year, with an average room rate of RMB2,060, according to STR Global. Winter