Rising out of the South China Sea between Guangdong and Vietnam, HAINAN ISLAND (海南岛, hăinándăo) marks the southernmost undisputed limit of Chinese authority, a 300km-broad spread of beaches, mountain scenery, history, myth and – most of all – the effects of exploitation. Today a province in its own right, Hainan was historically the “Tail of the Dragon”, an enigmatic full stop to the Han empire and – in the Han Chinese mind – an area inhabited by unspeakably backward races, only surfacing into popular consciousness when it could be of use. Han settlements were established around the coast in 200 AD, but for millennia the island was only seen fit to be a place of exile. So complete was Hainan’s isolation that, as recently as the 1930s, ethnic Li, who first settled here more than two thousand years ago, still lived a hunter-gatherer existence in the interior highlands.

Modern Hainan is no primitive paradise, however. After two years of naval bombardments, the island was occupied by the Japanese in 1939, and by the end of the war they had executed a full third of Hainan’s male population in retaliation for raids on their forces by Chinese guerrillas. Ecological decline began in the 1950s during the Great Leap Forward, and escalated through the 1960s when large numbers of Red Guards were sent over from the mainland to “learn from the peasants” and became involved in the first large-scale clearing of Hainan’s forests to plant cash crops. Successive governments have continued the process of stripping the island’s natural resources and abandoning the inhabitants to fend for themselves, in an appalling example of economic mismanagement: while there are skyscrapers and modern factories around the cities, you’ll also see country people so poor that they live in lean-tos made of mud and straw, which have to be rebuilt after each wet season. With the exception of ragged remnants clinging to the very tips of Hainan’s mountains, rainforest has ceded to eroded plantations given over to experimentation with different crops – rubber, mango, coconuts and coffee – in the hope that a market will emerge. Tourism seems to be the sole reliable source of income, and everyone is desperate to be involved. Persistent marketing has made Hainan the place that all Chinese want to come for a holiday.

The most obvious reason to come is to flop down on the warm, sandy beaches near the southern city of Sanya (三亚, sānyà) – as a rest cure after months on the mainland, it’s a very good one. Initially, there doesn’t seem much more to get excited about. Haikou (海口, hăikŏu), Hainan’s capital, bears evidence of brief colonial occupation, but its primary importance is as a transit point, while Han towns along the east coast have only slightly more character and scenic appeal. Spend a little time and effort elsewhere, however, and things start to get more interesting: the highlands around the town of Tongshi, or Wuzhi Shan Shi (通什, tōngshì or 五指山市, wŭzhĭ shān shì), are the place to start looking for Li culture, and the mountainous southwest hides some forgotten nature reserves, where what’s left of Hainan’s indigenous flora and fauna hangs by a thread. There are even a handful of underwater sites off the southern coast, the only place in provincial China where those with the necessary qualifications can go scuba diving.

Hainan’s extremely hot and humid wet season lasts from June to October. It’s better to visit between December and April, when the climate is generally dry and tropically moderate, sunny days peaking around 25°C on the southern coast. Getting to Hainan is straightforward, with flights from all over the country to Haikou and Sanya, trains from Guangzhou and regular ferries from Guangzhou and Hai’an in Guangdong province and Beihai in Guangxi.

Once there, getting around is easy: Hainan’s highways and roads are covered by a prolific quantity of local transport; high-speed buses link Haikou and Sanya in just three hours, while you can easily hop around the rest of the island by bus and minibus. Also note that, as a recognized tourist destination, Hainan, and Sanya in particular, is more expensive than the adjacent mainland – even Chinese tourists grumble about being constantly overcharged.