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Hainan, 'China's Hawaii,' falls short of its nickname

Xi Jinping's wish for a globally renowned resort bogs down on the local level

BEIJING -- The development of China's Hainan Island as an "international resort," as ordered by President Xi Jinping, is coming up against reality.

Known as "China's Hawaii," Hainan boasts crystal clear waters, year-round warm weather and white-sand beaches.

Ideas to further develop the island's tourism economy include a thoroughbred racetrack and a zone where internet access would be completely unrestricted.

There is also covetous talk of the many uninhabited islands around Hainan.

In early July, a number of comments expressing the desire to own an island were posted online. The comments came after the Hainan provincial government announced it would invite individuals and businesses to develop the uninhabited islands.

Once approved, applicants would be granted rights to an island and the surrounding ocean. The rights-holders would then be expected to develop their islands into tourist destinations.

In somewhat of an aberration, development is underway on the island of Wuzhizhou, off the coast of Sanya, Hainan Province. Tourists are already arriving, and in late July a guide on the island told departing visitors that they might have to wait in line for an hour or two before boarding a ferry back to Hainan. The guide asked for patience.

The ferry terminal was indeed packed. The complex includes a restaurant with tables for a few hundred diners; it had no empty seats.

The development of other islets would enhance the appeal of Hainan as a tourist destination.

A local resident expects Hainan to eventually thrive like Bali, the beloved Indonesian resort, and Phuket, one of Thailand's top vacation spots.

Amid much speculation as to who might be the first to apply for an island -- and for which one -- a new phrase has entered China's lexicon: "The dream of becoming an island owner."

Then news came that the dreamers would have to wait.

A local authority late last month told a Chinese reporter that "applications for the development of uninhabited islands cannot be made for the time being due to a lack of detailed management rules."

The authority said no decisions have been made as to which islands would be allowed to be developed, adding that the timing of any announcement remains up in the air.

Xi gave rise to the development dreams in April, when he visited Hainan and said, "We must accelerate the building of a new and beautiful Hainan Island ... into a global tourism resort."

The Hainan provincial government subsequently hammered out a series of measures to realize the president's aspirations.

The number of overnight trips to Hainan averages 55.91 million a year, though only 780,000 foreigners visit the island each year.

But Hainan holds considerable potential to attract far more overseas travelers.

Some Chinese are dreaming "of becoming an island owner" and turning one of the uninhabited islets off Hainan into a resort.

A three-year action plan released in June by the Hainan provincial government called for establishing a special zone where foreign tourists could have unrestricted access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites blocked in China.

Travelers to China tend to complain that they are denied access to their favorite online hangouts while in the country. Since some Hainan spots are particularly photogenic, it is thought that social media hounds would want to instantly share their island adventures with their friends and followers.

So the open-internet policy was proposed.

The backlash was quick. Chinese internet users felt they were being made into second-class citizens. One said the Hainan provincial government wanted to build a modern-day "concession," a residential area reserved for foreigners. Another wondered why Chinese could not also have unrestricted access to the internet.

The open internet plan has since been deleted from the provincial government's website. Uncertainty also hangs over the lifting of a ban on horse racing.

Several companies have expressed their intention to realize the thoroughbred ambition, according to Chinese media, but they have not had an easy time getting out of the gates.

Shenzhen-listed Luoniushan, which is in the food-processing and other businesses, in April revealed a plan to construct a racetrack. In the following month, the company's share price nearly doubled, only to plunge after authorities pointed to what it said were flaws in Luoniushan's plan.

It is now believed that the provincial government has stopped accepting business plans that include the words "horse racing."

As it stands, Hainan Island's potential as a globally renowned resort remains just that.

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