It’s taken more than 2000 years, but the Chinese have finally started to see Hǎinán Dao (Hainan Island) as more than a ‘gate of hell’, a place to which recalcitrant officials were banished to a fate marginally better than death. Indeed, the rehabilitation of Hǎinán’s reputation has been so fast and so complete that a visit to ‘China’s Hawaii’ has become a status symbol in itself.
Feeding directly off China’s booming economy, the country’s smallest province now sees about 80% of its income washed ashore by tourism. But it’s not just middle-class Chinese wearing Hawaiian-style shirt and shorts combos who are coming. London travel agencies are now offering Hǎinán packages alongside those to the Costa del Sol, and a growing number of independent travellers are finding that a side trip to China’s best beaches is a wonderful way to punctuate a trip to this vast country.
Hǎinán is in many ways more like Indochina than the polluted skies, freezing winters and two billion elbows that are often hard to escape on the mainland. And as a traveller, it’s hard not to appreciate that this is one of the few places where you can engage with Chinese unashamedly kicking back and having a good time.
Of course, it’s not all falling coconuts and tanning oil, and the more adventurous will find their trip much enhanced by a little exploration into the central highlands, which have moderate temperatures, thick canopies of forest, and Li and Miao villages. Prices are generally higher in Hǎinán, but avoid the winter rush for some very attractive discounts on hotel accommodation.