Matthew Phillips walks in the footsteps of China’s historical pariahs and discovers that life wasn’t so bad for them after all….
Once upon a time, the island province of Hainan was the barbarous backwater of the Chinese empire. During the Song and Ming dynasties, political exiles and garrulous poets were interred here alongside criminals and undesirables. It must have seemed odd to these outcasts that, as they arrived on the shores of Hainan, banishment turned out to be a tropical paradise.
Hainan’s international reputation has altered somewhat during the last millennia. The forgotten outpost of China’s southern territories has blossomed with age. By the 1980s, a burgeoning economy, in combination with sultry temperatures, ensured a prosperous tourist industry. Hotels sprang up along the beaches like a Monopoly board. Before long, Hainan had earned its sobriquet – ‘‘the Oriental Hawaii’’ – although, mercifully, it lacks the more extreme temperatures of its Pacific twin.
Recently, it was rumoured that Hainan was slowly falling victim to decay. Those unlucky souls who have visited the British seaside will know that there is nothing more depressing than the cracked paint and empty casinos of a once glittering waterfront. It is no small comfort therefore that the Chinese government announced plans to open up the Island to large scale investment. The response to this news has been electrifying. Foreign capital already exceeds $10 billion and enterprises everywhere have pledged vast investment in local infrastructure.
If you plan on taking advantage of Hainan’s innumerable pleasures, then I strongly advise a trip to the city of Sanya, the ‘‘South Gate of China.’’ Herein, visitors will find the perfect blend of palm trees, mountains and magnificent accommodation. In particular, the Ritz Carlton, the Banyan Tree and the Mandarin Oriental all come highly recommended.
One word of warning: avoid the rainy season which floods the area between May to October or don’t even bother packing a hairdryer!