Rising out of the South China Sea between Guangdong and Vietnam, Hainan Island (海南岛, hăinán dăo) marks the southernmost undisputed limit of Chinese authority, a 300km-broad spread of beaches, mountain scenery and the effects of exploitation. Haikou, Hainan’s capital, is of importance only as a transit point; the most obvious reason to visit the island is to flop down on the warm, sandy beaches near the southern city of Sanya – and, as a rest cure after months on the mainland, it’s a very good one. To be honest, there’s not a whole lot more to the place, though anyone hooked on marine adventure sports can explore, surprisingly perhaps, Hainan’s emerging scuba diving and surfing potential.
Today a province in its own right, Hainan was historically the “Tail of the Dragon”, an enigmatic full stop to the Han empire. Chinese settlements were established around the coast in 200 AD, but for millennia the island was seen as being inhabited by unspeakably backward races, only 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 over two thousand years ago, still lived a hunter-gatherer existence in the interior highlands.
Modern Hainan is no primitive paradise, however. The Japanese occupied the island in 1939, and by the end of the war 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 with the clearing of Hainan’s forests to plant cash crops. Tourism seems to be the sole reliable source of income these days, with the island promoted as China’s tropical holiday destination.
Hainan’s extremely hot and humid wet season lasts from June to October. It’s better to visit between February and April, when the climate is generally dry and tropically moderate, and prices reduce considerably.
Hainan’s million-strong Li population take their name from the big topknot (li) which men once wore. They probably arrived on Hainan from Guangxi about 200 BC, when they occupied the coast and displaced the aboriginal inhabitants before themselves being driven into the highlands by later Chinese migrations. The Li built villages with distinctive tunnel-shaped houses, evolved their own shamanistic religion, and used poisoned arrows to bring down game. Li women were known for their weaving skills, and the fact that, until very recently, many got their faces heavily tattooed with geometric patterns – apparently to make them undesirable to raiding parties of slavers from the coast, or rival clans. The latter have never coexisted very well, quarrelling to this day over territorial boundaries, and only united in their dislike of the Han Chinese – there were fourteen major rebellions against their presence on the island during the Qing era alone.
Though traditional life has all but vanished over the last half-century, there are still a few special events to watch out for. Best is the San Yue San festival (held on the third day of the third lunar month), the most auspicious time of the year in which to choose a partner, while in more remote corners of the highlands, funerals are traditionally celebrated with gunfire and three days of hard drinking by male participants.
Touted as Hainan’s second “native minority” by the tourist literature, the Miao are comparatively recent arrivals, forcibly recruited from Guizhou province as mercenaries to put down a Li uprising during the Ming dynasty. When the money ran out, the Miao stopped fighting and settled in the western highlands, where they formed a fifty-thousand-strong community in the remotest of valleys.
Chinese maps of China always show a looped extension of the southern borders reaching 1500km down through the South China Sea to within spitting distance of Borneo, enclosing a host of reefs and minute islands. These sit over what might be major oil and gas reserves, and are consequently claimed by every nation in the region – China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have all put in their bids, based on historical or geographic associations.
Occupied by Japan during the 1940s but unclaimed after World War II, the Spratly and Paracel islands are perhaps the most contentious groups. Vietnam and China both declared ownership of the Paracels in the 1970s, and 70 Vietnamese soldiers were killed when the Chinese seized the islands in 1974, coming to blows again in 1988 when the Chinese navy sank two Vietnamese gunboats. Then, in 1995, the Philippines stepped in, destroying Chinese territorial markers erected over the most westerly reefs in the Spratly group and capturing a nearby Chinese trawler. Ongoing minor brawls encouraged the nations of the region – including China – to hammer out a landmark agreement in November 2002, which basically allows access for all, while territorial disputes are settled one by one. However, neither China nor Vietnam has kept to the letter of the agreement, and indeed in July of the same year, China established Sansha City on the Paracels to oversee its territory in the South China Sea.
In 2012, the International Court of Justice ruling on the “Nicaragua v Colombia” case (about islands in the Caribbean) cast doubt on whether many of the tiny South China Sea Islands would generate an Exclusive Economic Zone around them under international law. This greatly reduces their economic significance, but not their use as a focus of nationalistic fervour – a difficult issue where China and Japan are concerned.
Some 320km across the island from Haikou on Hainan’s southern coast, SANYA is, sooner or later, the destination of every visitor to the island. Sanya City itself is a rather pleasant, once-scruffy fishing port, surrounded by concrete high-rise holiday resorts, that has twice hosted the Miss World contest, but what pulls in the crowds – a huge number of whom are Russian – are surrounding beaches at Dadonghai and Yalong. Chinese tourists also flock to overcrowded and overpriced scenic spots such as Tianya Haijiao, all of which are of little interest to foreigners.
It must be said that though the beaches here are good, a trip to Sanya can involve a few irritations, especially for those on a budget: at peak times – from October to February and especially Chinese New Year – room rates soar and the usual tourist hassles intensify. Off-season, however, beaches are uncrowded and the atmosphere is pretty mellow.
Low visibility and only moderate maximum depths don’t make Hainan the most exciting location for scuba diving, but it can be good fun and there’s always the novelty of having dived in China. Don’t bother with Dadonghai; the best areas near Sanya are just east at Yalong Bay (clear water and best for its coral growth, and a variety of fish); Tianya Haijiao, over to the far west of Sanya Bay (good for molluscs); and – best of all – Wuzhizhou Island, in Lingshui Bay around 30km east of Sanya (coral, fish, molluscs and crystal-clear water). Bookings can be made through virtually any hotel (the hostels are the best), but touts, who are more amenable to bargaining, often patrol the beachfront at Dadonghai and Yalong Bay.
Yalong Bay is the least expensive, and boat dives around the west of the bay for certified divers run at ¥580–680 for one tank, with additional tanks ¥200. Without certification, you can do a controlled 30-minute “resort” dive for ¥300–400. Snorkelling trips cost around ¥200 for a couple of hours.
Trips to Tianya Haijao (diving around West Island) and Wuzhizhou Island are both about fifty percent more expensive than Yalong Bay, and require you to pay an “island landing fee” of ¥148 on top of diving costs. You can dive at Wuzhizhou for considerably less, however, by booking in nearby Houhai Bay, whose operators dive on the same sites but don’t “land”.
Hainan has some of the best surfing beaches in China, and there are two easily accessible surf resorts on the east coast with foreign co-owners. Riyue Bay, 19km outside Wanning about halfway down the east coast, is home to the Riyue Bay Surfing Club who rent boards for ¥100/day; or you can get 2hr lessons in English for ¥400 (surfinghainan.com). Closer to Sanya, and with warmer water, Houhai Bay is where you’ll find the Karma Surf Hostel and School who have similar rates and surf from a number of different beaches depending on the season.
Northeastern and eastern swells bring waves of around 1–2m most of the year, though during typhoon season (June–Sept), waves will be more like 3–5m and sometimes up to 6m. Riyue Bay is a northeast open bay and probably better during the winter months, when it gets up to 5m waves, and is hence the setting for the ISA Hainan International Surfing Festival each January, and the smaller ASB Hainan Classic competition in November (hainaninternationalsurfingfestival.com). If you know your surfing, Houhai would be the Huntington Beach, and Riyue more like the Hawaiian North Shore.