China’s ecological Hainan Island

It is little wonder that Hainan Island, with its clear beaches, sprawling resorts and designer golf courses, is the wealthy Chinese holidaymakers’ answer to Bali or Hawaii. With the clear air and tropical climate (winter lasts for a week, in February, when temperatures might sink to 16ºC), it’s also a popular spot for Russian and Korean business travellers. Locals still greet Caucasian tourists with Russian phrases, unaware they might be among the growing number of visitors from Europe and the US.

For anyone who has just arrived from one of the crowded cities on the Chinese mainland, or from nearby Hong Kong, the first benefit of Sanya is immediately obvious. That fresh air. Hoteliers and tourist brochures quote the UN World Environmental Protection Organization as rating the tourist-friendly city of Sanya as second only to Havana (Cuba) in air quality (with Haikao, in northern Hainan, also listed in the top five). As the WEPO doesn’t seem to exist, we are not certain of the veracity of this claim. Nonetheless, Sanya’s air seems as clear and as healthy as the pristine beaches along its shore.

The reason behind this is no mystery. Though it has grown rapidly in recent years, as billions are ploughed into the tourist trade, Sanya’s population is still only 500,000 — tiny by Chinese standards. Hainan does not have heavy industry. Apart from tourism, the economy is buoyed by agriculture, mostly tropical fruits and vegetables.

The food is fresh and organically grown, partly because the farmers can’t yet afford to spray their crops with pesticides or interfere with the genes. The effects on their health are tremendous. The locals, enjoying uncontaminated mangoes and pineapples, have a glowing complexion and exude good health. The native Li people, on the border land of Sanya city and Baoting county, often live to be 90. Just as well. The Li people, who still live in thatched huts (but are entrepreneurial enough to welcome you with open arms and multilingual guides), give every impression of enjoying life.

Their food is a simple but endearing combination of fruit, steamed vegetables, seafood, bamboo rice and a selection of coconut sweets. Li food is not fried or roasted but steamed and mildly flavoured with local spices. Few people in the world would have a healthier diet. Even the betel-nut, known in other cultures as a stimulant, is prized by the Li people for healthy and calming properties — and as a symbolic offering to guests.

There are also customs attached to the local Shanlan rice wine, which is offered to guests in three stages. First, the guest and the host chat while they enjoy the wine. Second, the guest “must get drunk according to Li ethnic group custom”. Third (and perhaps logically), “the host and the guest sing folk songs together”. Sounds like a widespread custom.

Like most areas of China, the cuisine of Sanya bears only a vague resemblance to the recipes served at Australia’s lino-floor-and-vinyl-seat Chinese restaurants. It is a combination of Li recipes and influences from the mainland (following many centuries of trade). Rice is not so ubiquitous. When it is served, it is usually not boiled but cooked Li-style: steamed in bamboo stalks. The result is sticky, very filling and, despite its basic flavours, remarkably tasty.

Seafood, the foundation of so much Hainan cuisine, is fresh from the clear waters surrounding the island, with plenty of variety: abalone, king prawns, sea cucumbers, crab, mussels and local specialities such as coconut-stuffed squid and lobster with island spices. Though Sanya has scores of international restaurants, the traditional recipes — using native ingredients from the island itself — are still hard to beat.

For Hainan chicken, almost certainly the region’s most famous dish, the chickens’ breeding environment (strictly free-range) and their diet (coconut, peanuts and ricebran) provide a distinctive flavour and texture. For this recipe, the chicken is poached in water spiked with aromatics, cut into small pieces and served with a minced ginger and garlic sauce.

More daring foods are also on offer. The restaurant at the Narada Resort & Spa, at the foot of the Qixian Mountain, includes tortoise and snake soup (all farmed), nutrition-rich brook turtle and even deer rat, caught in the rainforests that surround the resort. None of our party was game to try this and, while I like to be adventurous with most things, in this case I was able to plead vegetarianism. A pity, perhaps, as one of the staff enthusiastically described the rat meat is “fat and tender and delicious”. And healthy, too, they insist.

If Hainan has a spiritual centre, it is perhaps a 40-minute drive from Sanya. Here at the foot of Mount Nanshan, China’s southernmost mountain, is a 200-hectare rainforest park known officially, and utterly dryly, as the Sanya Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone. The park is designed to reflect three significant themes of Hainan culture: Buddhism, longevity and ecology.

Here is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists around China. The Nanshan Temple, a Buddhist structure within the park, covers an area of some 40,000 square metres. Even more imposing is the world’s tallest Buddha statue: the 108-metre Guanyin (goddess of mercy), towering over the waters of the South China Sea. Slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York, this landmark is a $120 million titanium monolith, unveiled not in ancient times but in a gala 2005 ceremony, complete with ritual blessings by 108 monks from around China. Guanyin shows a three-sided female form of the Buddha. Each side reveals an identical face but signifies distinct qualities. The face of peace (holding a lotus flower) watches over the rainforest, wisdom (holding a sutra) surveys Mount Nanshan, and mercy (with prayer beads) looks directly on to the sea.

The park’s second cultural theme — longevity — is symbolised in the Cultural Tourism Zone by the ancient Dracaena cambodiana trees on the peak of Mount Nanshan, which are believed to be nearly 6000 years old. Chinese wellwishers often say: “May you live as long as the pines on Mount Nanshan.”

This being China, a festival of this theme is also celebrated. The biennial Longevity Cultural Festival, held on the ninth of September, draws international visitors. If it’s too early to know whether this has increased their lifespans (the event has only been held since 1999), it has certainly provided many opportunities to increase their overall health. The program focuses on the spiritual (Buddhist rituals), physical (fitness activities), creative (cultural performances, art exhibitions), practical (seminars on senior health and wellbeing) and other aspects of long-term health.

As the name suggests, the Cultural Tourism Zone is aimed at not only spiritual pilgrims and health-conscious travellers but also tourists who wish to enjoy the natural and peaceful environment — encompassed in the third theme: ecology. Central to this is the Auspiciousness Garden, a 40-hectare site in which deer wander peacefully near the trees, ranging from the (literally) iconic banyans to rare local species such as the dragon-blood tree.

The park has hotels and leisure villas, including the Bamboo Grove Villas, happily promoted as “completely copied from those of [the] US … a prime choice for family vacationers”. However, the ecology theme provides a somewhat more adventurous form of lodging, with eco-treehouses constructed in the tamarind trees that grow along the sand dunes. They are built by the decidedly non-exotic Hawaii Tree House Company but don’t let that put you off. A night in a treehouse is still fun.

The future, according to Hainan’s hard-working tourism officials, lies in eco-tourism. One of the largest developments under construction is the Yanoda Rainforest, encompassing an area of 45 square kilometres, which already offers such wonderfully named tours as the Archaic Beast Fantasy Tour and the Journey of Enjoying Waterfalls in Dream Valley.

As you enter the rainforest, members of the staff — whatever their duty — welcome you cheerfully with a call of “Yanoda!” and a unique two-finger wave. Though it currently offers pleasant walking tracks through natural rainforest, and an abseiling tour up the waterfalls (thrilling but far safer than it sounds), the Chinese government has pledged $570 million over the next six years to turn the area into an eco-tourism hub, including a number of ecological research centres.

When the officials talk about tourism, the environment enters the conversation with appealing regularity. Even the multitude of golf courses, traditionally the bane of environmentalists, are built to strict environmental standards. “We take the environment very seriously,” says Jasmine Wang of the Mission Hills Golf Club, the world’s largest golf club, built against a spectacular volcanic backdrop in northern Hainan. “We built only on the lava roads, not in forests. Where there’s a tree, we kept it there. It’s very eco-friendly.”

The idea to use the natural environment rather than simply build over it is not limited to the golf courses. The attached golf resort, for example, includes a natural hot spring. Thanks to the volcanic activity, Hainan has the highest density of hot springs in China, most famously the Pearl River Nantian Hot Spring (“Heavenly Hot Spring”), in Sanya. China’s largest open-air hot spring resort, Nantian has 67 hot springs of various sizes and functions, including the waterfall pool, back massage pool, massage simulation pool, perfumed pool, fragrant flower pool, overflowing flower pool, skincare pool, physiotherapy pool and medicinal pool (in which you can bathe in 12 kinds of Chinese medicinal herbs).

Nantian is also one of a few places in Hainan (along with the Narada Resort & Spa) to offer a “fish therapy” pool, in which you dip your feet or (if you are particularly game) immerse your entire body, while numerous tiny species of fish gather around you, nibbling away at your dead skin. The experience is ticklish and “weird” enough to scare away some visitors, who seem unenthused by the prospect of being eaten by fish. Still, if you persevere for just 20 minutes, you find that your skin feels softer and smoother than before.

Also worth visiting is the Blue Ocean Hot Springs, located in a canyon in Lanyang Town, near Danzhou. This occupies a spa area 6km long, with water temperatures ranging from a comparatively mild 43 degrees to a formidable 84 degrees (that’s Celsius!). It can potentially cure any number of ailments — rheumatoid arthritis, dermal and cardiovascular problems — with its mix of ingredients: zinc, strontium, lithium, bromine and other trace elements.

True hot springs aficionados can even visit Hainan on July the seventh each year, for (you guessed it) the Seven Fairies Hot Spring Festival, held in Baoting. According to legend, the seventh fairy of Heaven descended to Earth and fell in love with a young noble, but as fairies and humans aren’t supposed to marry, they were separated. Since then, they have only met on the seventh day of the seventh month — China’s answer to Valentine’s Day. Naturally, a dip in the cleansing waters of the natural springs can become a romantic ritual during this festival, as lovers show affection by splashing each other with the water, as the festivities take place in the background.

Hainan Island is an excellent place for a healthy and ecological holiday. The question is: how long will this last? In 2009, the Chinese government decreed that Hainan was the International Tourism Island. Fortunately, they are well aware that the natural environment is part of the attraction. But, as with any tourism hot spot, it might well become a juggling act. Will it become like Bali, which lost focus on its natural environment, hoping that the traditional culture and the five-star resorts would make up for the filthy beaches? Will it become like many other coastal resorts, more famous for drunken revelry or cheap merchandise than for healthy cuisine or natural Beauty? Whatever happens in the future, Hainan right now is a place to enjoy, relax, reinvigorate … and possibly even to heal. Its potential goes well beyond sand and surf.


Mark Juddery is an author, journalist and travel writer. His next book, Best. Times. Ever. Why Almost Everything Is Better Than It Used to Be, will be published in February 2014 (Hardie Grant).

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 05 01t105805.516

Between the Capes

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 04 03t110114.626

Unleash your sense of adventure in Shoalhaven

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 02 21t105949.886

Gunbim Galleries in Kakadu

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (89)

The road to adventure in Christchurch