But before China designated Hainan as a Special Economic Zone in 1988, the tropical island wasn’t much to speak of in terms of attractions and infrastructure. Fast forward to today and its economy has become a symbol of domestic growth and social development. Now many are asking: could other islands replicate Hainan’s success?
Weizhou Island and the city of Beihai are the favorites to do so. The former, a small, volcanic island, is already a domestic tourist hub and famous for its inviting scenery and white sand. Meanwhile, Beihai lays claim to “the greatest beach in China.”
The case against? At a mere 25 square kilometers, Weizhou Island doesn’t have Hainan’s size. But then the Dutch side of the island of Sint Maarten is only 41.44 square kilometers: this hasn’t stopped it from building a tourism haven for the global wealthy class. Similarly (and although not an island but a peninsula), Macau has a land area of around 32.9 square kilometers. And it’s one of the wealthiest countries in the world (with a GDP/capita of 86,117.66 USD in 2019).
Weizhou Island could copy Macau or even Singapore, transforming into a free port, financial center, and glitzy destination. By attracting Asia’s elite through considerable tax breaks, China could find a second Hong Kong — one where Beijing can be certain of economic and cultural control.
There are clear signs that it is pledging support. The GEF Small Grants Programme states that “Weizhou Island has become the second island in China after Hainan Island, which is clearly positioned to develop international high-end leisure and holiday tourism by the government.”
It also mentions that the government has developed and implemented “Weizhou Island Tourism Resources Development and Ecological Environment Protection Plan” and “Tourist Area in Weizhou Island, Beihai Development Plan.”
Last November, the 2021 Belt and Road International Regatta was held in Beihai. This wasn’t the first of its kind. “In recent years, by holding various international marine sports events, Beihai has fully tapped high-quality marine resources such as Beihai Yintan Beach and Weizhou Island and turned itself into an international coastal tourism resort,” stated a press release provided by Belt and Road International Regatta Organizing Committee.
Evidently, Weizhou Island could benefit from the unprecedented growth of domestic tourism. As international travel is not expected to return fully until 2023 (at the earliest), the staycation trend for China is not going away any time soon. Moreover, the revival of Chinese nationalism and the recent heritage tourism trend are also driving the trend. Beihai’s historic Old Street, for instance, is one of the top-rated sites in the area.
China needs to develop a long-term tourism plan for Weizhou Island and the surrounding area. The government can commit to tax and economic incentives, cash grants for promotional activities, and even land grants for hotel developments. Local authorities should work together with domestic and international corporations to allocate funding for local tourism initiatives: ecotourism projects, or tailored-made sustainable package tours by platforms like Ctrip.com and Meituan. It is not the finished product. But by no means should this deter investors. Again, one needs only look at Sint Maarten and Macau for a possible roadmap to a new —yet different — Hainan.