Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dreaming of Paradise

After finally making it back to Beijing from Hainan, it was interesting to read in the news that the central government has decided to make an all-out push to develop Hainan Province as a world-class destination by 2020.

In a proposal by the State Council on Monday, Hainan will be developed into a venue to host international sports and entertainment events, and perhaps even have lottery and gaming industries. No other area in China allows gambling except for Macau.

"If entertainment elements are not introduced in Hainan, something will be missing in an international tourism destination," Wang Yongsheng of the Regional Tourism Development of the Regional Science Association of China was quoted as saying. He added that while gambling is forbidden in South Korea, overseas passport holders can gamble at Walrk Hill in Seoul.

The government will also extend visa-free policies to Finland, Denmark, Norway, Ukraine and Kazakhtstan from the already 21 countries including the United States, Canada and Japan. In 2007 there were 18 million domestic visitors to Hainan, but only 750,000 from overseas. There will also be more duty-free shopping on the island.

"It'll be much more convenient to purchase luxury goods in Hainan than Hong Kong, as the return flight tickets and the price of local hotels are cheaper, and tourists don't need to apply for an exit permit in advance or choose international flights," said Liao Wei, general manager of the China Travel Service Group in Chongqing.

While all these proposals are fantastic, they are all so idealistic that it seems like the government doesn't really know what is going on in the island province right now.

First off, have they seen the Sanya and Haikou airports? They are hardly of an international standard and don't have staff who speak enough English to service foreigners. While it was quite impressive to see DFS or the Duty-Free Shop chain, it is only selling a limited selection of cosmetics and perfumes, and the rest of the shops selling an array of expensive fruits at exortionate prices aren't quite enticing. And the food stands? Hardly enough.

Next infrastructure. While most of the roads are decently paved, there are many more that need work. There isn't enough public transportation vehicles from buses to taxis available. Airport express trains need to be built as well as a rail network through the province. Getting to the Sofitel Boao only had two options -- using three different types of transport or a hotel car. Many other top hotel resorts are probably like that too.

A good thing happening so far is that many of the street lamps are solar and wind powered pictured above. I don't know how much power they are able to generate from a small solar panel and wind turbine, but it's a start.

While service in Beijing isn't quite world-class though the city hosted the 2008 Olympics, it's not that great in Hainan either. To be an international tourist destination requires exceptional service which is why Hong Kong is still tops when it comes to the service industry in Asia.

And what makes Hainan so different from other tropical destinations like Thailand and Indonesia? It doesn't seem to have much of a cultural aspect that makes it exotic in any way. Is gambling going to make it so much better? Perhaps this is one way for the central government to keep a closer eye on its residents (or corrupt officials) who are currently spending vast amounts of money in Hong Kong and Macau.

Right now a holiday to Sanya is not cheap -- not only are plane tickets expensive, but so are hotel rooms which are exorbitant. Adding many more top hotels will not make Hainan that much more attractive. The market can only handle so many world-class resorts and golf courses making this destination out of reach of the majority of people.

Hainan officials promise that construction will try not to have too much of an impact on the environment, but really, flying there is hardly creating a low-carbon footprint. From my experience at the Sofitel Boao, the majority of food and all the items there had to be shipped, flown and trucked in. How is that sustainable?

And what about the locals? This gentrification of the province may be good, but has made the standard of living there very expensive on their low wages. Also, if gaming is introduced to Hainan, a littany of social issues are going to crop up and is the government prepared to deal with everything from petty crimes and gambling addictions to prostitution and drugs?

All this is happening in 10 years? Methinks it's back to the drawing board...

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