Hainan's boom not for everybody

Hainan's boom not for everybody

As Hainan continues its transformation into China's premiere tropical tourism destination, locals feel a bit out of place
development of hainan island
The tranquility of Hainan is typically disrupted by the rumble of construction, such as caused by this truck delivering ballast to the site of Maryland Marina in Haikou. Century Bridge is in the distance.

It's hard to believe that 20 years ago, Haikou was studded with hulking grey ghosts -- half-built concrete tower blocks, abandoned by developers who had run out of funding.Today, every available square meter is sought after.

The mood in the island’s northeastern capital Haikou is as laid back as ever, a pleasantly planned and greened city, but with a new density of tall buildings. A yachting marina is under construction and an outlandish semi-open theater has been built to permanently house “Hainan Impression,” Zhang Yimou’s Hainan version of his signature "Impression" series, lavish theatrical performances by indigenous people that capture the spirit of the location.

But despite the construction boom, local sentiment is not optimistic. Most graduates are still moving away to coastal cities to look for work, and owners of modest homes refuse to sell despite rising property prices.

Island life to high life

While Haikou has been Hainan’s gateway for centuries, it is the long sandy bays around Sanya City in the south of the island that are prioritized for tourism-focused development. Fishing villages in this area were compensated to move out and big international resorts moved in from the late 1990s. The scope of Hainan’s development radiates from this focal point.

A drive 30 kilometers southeast to Yalong Bay, whisks the visitor past village-style housing provided for the ex-fishing community. A pristine National Marine Park resides with its 7.5-kilometer sweep of golden sand and back-to-back holiday homes and resorts, many of big international brands. More are planned to be crammed into the remaining space in the next two years.

With Yalong Bay reaching full capacity, the next two bays west are also being developed into ambitious, multi-billion dollar mixed-use projects. North of Sanya, oyster farmers and fishing communities are being gradually bought out in Lingshui County to make way for more resorts and coast-hugging golf courses. Further north again, in Wenchang County, land prices have leaped ever since work began on a revamp of the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center and the associated space and science theme park.

It may have only been deemed Hainan International Tourism Island in early 2010, but Hainan is already several phases into its metamorphosis into China’s government-sanctioned holiday destination. The infrastructure will be in place as soon as next month, when a high-speed rail link between Haikou and Sanya is due to start running. All that is missing are the visitors.

Domestic visitors to Hainan (those from China) totaled 1.9 million in 2009, according to Sinomedia. But international tourists are on the rise, nearly tripling in the first half of 2010, to reach 316,000, according to China Hospitality News.

Locals left behind

development of hainan islandHainan resident Wang Hui Lan with her student.

Fast-paced development in Hainan is not without criticism from those who call it home. More than 6,000 local residents have been displaced by the Wenchang project alone. Property prices have more than doubled in a handful of years.

According to China's National Bureau of Statistics, average prices of newly constructed residential buildings in Haikou rose 17 percent month-on-month during the first two months of 2010, with top-tier luxury homes reaching RMB 100,000 per square meter in Sanya City. Little trickle-down effect seems to be showing for it.

“The economic boom in Hainan makes no difference to me,” says 40-something music teacher Wang Hui Lan. “Sure, the price of my flat has increased in value but, obviously, if I sell it I will need to buy a proportionally more expensive place. I feel sorry for those younger than me, who now can’t afford to buy their first home.”

Haikou native, He Xueli, 22, is one such case. “Since the new status was announced, many more business people arrived from other parts of China and bought property to live in and as investments, which has also driven the price up,” she says.

He left Haikou just over a year ago, choosing to study in Shenzhen, a city in nearby Guangdong Province with better prospects than Hainan.

“Average income is quite low in Hainan,” says the marketing undergraduate. “It starts at around RMB 800 per month, whereas, in Shenzhen average starting salaries are RMB1,100. Yet the cost of living is now the same in both places. Job prospects are wider too in Shenzhen; I hope to stay on and find a job in the city after graduating.”

He, like most prospective university students in Hainan, is realistic about how far their university degree will take them in Hainan. “Unless their parents have guanxi -- privileged government or business connections on the island -- they won’t get anywhere,” she says.

development of hainan islandThe theater for Zhang Yimou's "Hainan Impression."

development of hainan islandRoad workers seal what was for decades a mud track linking villages in Wenchang County.

Editor of the current third edition of Time Out's Hong Kong, Macau & Guangzhou guidebook, London-born writer, editor and radio broadcaster, Andrew Dembina landed in Hong Kong in 1992 and never left.
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