Inside the Chinese tropical island dubbed the 'Hawaii of the East,' which the Communist elite is making a hotspot for gambling, tech, and luxury

Anna Frodesiak/Wikimedia Commons

China is planning to transform an island the size of a small country into a sprawling hub for foreign investment, gambling, tourism, and luxury.

Xi Jinping’s government announced its plans for Hainan last month. It said it would encourage the horse racing, gambling, and water sports industries to the island known as the “Hawaii of the East.”

This is a big deal: The Chinese Communist Party bans its members from playing golf, prohibits gambling, and only allows occasional horse-racing.

Scroll down to learn more about the island destined to become China’s biggest playground.

The island of Hainan is located in southern China. Its Chinese name — 海南 — means “south of the sea.” Its population is around 9 million, and its landmass is around the size of Belgium.

Google Maps/Business Insider

Many ad campaigns and news outlets have described the island as the “Hawaii of China” or the “Hawaii of the East.”

CCTV NewsThe oceanfront in Sanya, the southernmost city in Hainan.

It certainly looks very different to other pollution-ridden Chinese cities like Beijing.

Locals living on the mainland dream of going there.

Google MapsA view overlooking Haitang Bay in south Hainan.

Thomas Liu, a native of the central Chinese city of Chengdu, told CNN: “I think many people, when we are young, we know that Hainan is a very beautiful place, so I think for many people they have a little dream to go to Hainan.”

China used to limit international tourism into the island — now it’s relaxing the rules. Earlier this week the government said it would let citizens of 59 countries go there visa-free for a month, extending earlier liberalisation.

China Photos/GettyA light show in front of the Nanshan Maritime Guanyin statue in Sanya.

The full list now includes the US, all EU countries, Canada, Australia, and South Korea.

It’s part of a plan to expose Hainan to foreign investment and tourism, which is limited in other parts of China.

A government document published last week said the plan to develop Hainan is a personal priority for president Xi Jinping.

Source: Central Committee of the Communist Party of China

China has actually been trying to develop Hainan’s tourism industry for years, but has struggled. The island attracted around 70 million tourists last year, but only 1.1 million were from other countries.

VCG/VCG via GettyTourists at Luhuitou Park in southern Hainan in 2014. The island has struggled to attract foreign tourists.

In comparison, Bali, which is one-sixth the size of Hainan, received more than 5 million foreign tourists in the same period, the South China Morning Post reported.

Source: China Daily, South China Morning Post

The island is currently home to multiple luxury hotels, golf courses, and beaches. The Mandarin Oriental, Ritz Carlton, and Shangri-La all have chains on the island.

Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group/Wikimedia CommonsThe Mandarin Oriental hotel in Sanya.

Here’s the view from the Mandarin Oriental’s grounds in Sanya.

Google Maps

The island also home to multiple golf courses — one of which was used for the Ladies’ PGA tournament last November. Golf is usually regarded unfavourably in China because Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, dismissed it as a “sport for millionaires.”

Zhe Ji/GettyShanshan Feng, who ultimately won the LPGA tournament, at the 18th hole at Hainan’s Jian Lake Blue Bay golf course.

See more: China is shutting down this billionaire’s golf courses amid fears the sport breeds corruption

Earlier this month the government also said it would encourage people to pursue water sports, horse racing, and gambling in the region. This is a big deal: China bans all forms of gambling on its mainland, and only allows some horse racing.

Vince Caligiuri/GettyThe Happy Valley Racecourse in Hong Kong, where horse racing is allowed. As a special administrative region, Hong Kong operates under separate laws.

The government said in a document published last week it would “encourage the development of beach sports, water sports, horse racing, and other projects, and support the creation of a national sports tourism demonstration area. Explore the development of quiz-type sports lottery tickets and large-scale international events that open lottery tickets.”

It did not elaborate on how it would do so.

Source: Wall Street Journal

China’s official encouragement of gambling in Hainan may even turn the island into the country’s version of Las Vegas, said Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based journalist.

“China’s Vegas” is a title currently held by Macau, an autonomous region some 250 miles from Hainan. Macau’s Cotai Strip, modelled after the Las Vegas Strip, is home to casino-hotels like The Venetian, Wynn, and Sands.

China has built artificial islands around Hainan as well. One is Phoenix Island, which was designed just for tourism and luxury — a promotional pamphlet even called it “Oriental Dubai.”

Anna Frodesiak/Wikimedia Commons

Trip Advisor reviews of the island range from gushing compliments for its “amazing architecture and inspiration” to remarks that it was “tacky.”

Source:, Trip Advisor

Another one that’s currently being built is Nanhai Pearl Artificial Island, a 266-hectare (1 square mile) large atoll which will take the shape of a yin-yang symbol.

Anna Frodesiak via Wikimedia CommonsAn information sign for Nanhai Pearl Artificial Island.

Authorities have already built floodlights down the middle and perimeter of the island — here’s what it looks like in the dark.

Authorities also hope to develop cruise tourism around Hainan, which can in turn boost tourism in countries along China’s “Belt and Road” trade route.

Source: CCTV News

See also: Inside ‘Belt and Road,’ China’s mega-project that is linking 70 countries across Asia, Europe, and Africa

China has a lot of plans for Hainan beyond tourism. It also wants to transform the island into a hub for artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and electric cars.

Source: Bloomberg

This could challenge the economies of nearby port cities like Hong Kong and Singapore.

Wikimedia CommonsSingapore’s port.

No concrete plans have been put in place since the government’s ambitious plan came out. But investors already seem excited about the island’s future potential — stocks whose names simply contained the word “Hainan” recently surged on an otherwise down day in the Chinese market.

China Photos/GettyFireworks display near the Nanshan Maritime Guanyin statue in Sanya.

Source: Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal

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