Hainan, the southern Chinese island known as the “Hawaii of the East,” is where the two extremes of China’s beach culture collide.
Go to any public beach in Sanya, the island’s largest resort city, and you will see families with kids enjoying the sea waves and coconut palms while wearing full-on sun-protective clothing. Bikinis are out of sight, and few people are swimming.
Beaches have a totally different vibe in Houhai Bay, a village about an hour’s drive from Sanya’s city center. Here, trendy youths wear bold bikini sets, go surfing, and fully embrace the beach lifestyle.
A surfing community has formed in Houhai Bay, the new hotspot for China’s beachgoers and digital nomads. On Gen Z’s favorite video site Bilibili, a vlog by Yayaya (@一颗牙牙吖) about taking a gap year and going surfing Houhai Bay has gained hundreds of thousands of views. A beach lifestyle has become synonymous with a freer, more inspiring way of life.
The rise of surfing and watersports in mainstream culture is one of the driving forces behind the surge of China’s beach lifestyles. As a part of the country’s post-Covid outdoor sports boom, surfing, diving, and wake surfing have surged in popularity on social media in the past few years.
On Xiaohongshu, the hashtag #tail wave surfing has surpassed 40 million views. On Douyin, a site-wide campaign launched in July 2020 called “Youth Trending Sports” attracted 5.3 billion views, featuring influencers skateboarding, surfing, and diving. Also in 2020, China launched its first surfing-themed TV show, Summer Surf Shop, which followed celebrities like Huang Xuan and Wang Yibo as they learned how to surf.
This newfound fascination with surfing has prompted local brands to cater to the rising demand for sporty-chic beachwear. Goodbai, an athleisure label founded by Chinese actor Bai Jingting, recently launched its Spring Summer 2023 resort collection inspired by sea waves and surfer lifestyles. While surfing has long been a youth marketing symbol in Western advertising, it is a fresh theme in China’s fashion landscape.
Luxury and fashion brands have also capitalized on China’s emerging beach travel trend by launching pop-up stores in Hainan every summer. This June, Dior renewed its Dioriviera summer pop-up concept with logo monogram umbrellas, beach beds, and a lounge bar inside the Edison Hotel, a luxury resort in Sanya for two years in a row.
Earlier in January 2023, Prada dropped a red lantern-shaped pop-up store in the city’s CDF duty-free mall with a Lunar New Year-inspired fragrance line. In June 2022, Maison Margiela unveiled a two-story pop-up to showcase the brand’s signature Replica fragrances.
However, just because luxury retail is booming in Sanya, it doesn’t mean that beach lifestyles are dominating the mainstream. Due to China’s long-standing social stigma around tanning and its predominantly conservative attitudes towards swimwear, beach culture still remains a niche youth trend.
“When I quit my teaching job in Chengdu and moved to Hainan to become a surfer, my family threatened to never see me again. They were afraid that I would get so tanned from the sun that no man would ever marry a tanned woman like me. They also could not understand the concept of spending time on the beach either, because for them beaches are only for photos,” says Vicky Yuan, a 30-year-old surfer living in Houhai who now runs a beach lifestyle account (@Vicky小源源) on Bilibili.
As dreamy as it may sound, being a tanned, fit woman living by the beach goes against China’s traditional beauty standards and social expectations of women.
Li Sheng, a swimwear designer based in Shenzhen, also acknowledges the conservative nature of many Chinese beachgoers.
“I have designed swimwear for both foreign and domestic brands. In my experience, Europeans and Americans like two-piece swimsuits and they love sexy styles. Chinese are the most conservative ones, even more than the Korean and Japanese clients. The bestsellers are usually swim dresses that are feminine and not so revealing,” says Li.
“In my experience, Europeans and Americans like two-piece swimsuits and they love sexy styles. Chinese are the most conservative ones, even more than the Korean and Japanese clients. The bestsellers are usually swim dresses that are feminine and not so revealing.”
According to Li, the boundary between swimwear and resort wear is blurry for mainstream Chinese consumers, as most of them do not spend time by the beach or in the sea.
Balneaire, a local Chinese swimwear brand, positions its swimwear as ready-to-wear accessories instead of actual beachwear. Centering its 2022 Shanghai show around the concept “you don’t have to swim to wear a swimsuit,” the brand paired swimsuits with jeans, sarongs, and skirts. Its “no swimming needed” strategy provided convenient solutions for conservative beachgoers by bridging the gap between beachwear and everyday vacation wear.
Despite these cultural and generational divides about beach lifestyles, China’s demand for beach tourism is still booming. In 2023, Hainan received 3.2 million visitors during the May Day holiday, a 141% increase compared to the same period in 2019. As such, the Chinese beachwear market is poised for continued growth.
For brands, recognizing the opportunities presented by Gen Z’s shifting cultural norms and the emerging beach cultures could lead to sunnier days ahead.