Paradise lost?

By Lin Shujuan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-24 09:39

Paradise lost?
Many Hainan natives have mixed feelings about their hometown becoming
 an international tourist destination. Already, property prices have
 gone up by 200 percent since last October. Shi yan / for China Daily

Residents of the country's only tropical island fear that ambitious tourism development will threaten their leisurely way of life. Lin Shujuan reports

Hainan province native Xing Fushan has bittersweet feelings about his hometown becoming a top international tourist destination.

The nationally designated development strategy has provided the 33-year-old with a comfortable job in the provincial capital Haikou. But it has also made it more difficult for the son of farmers in the island province's Wenchang county to get married.

Xing works as a porter and driver at a newly opened golf resort. The sport is flourishing on China's only tropical island, as the province pushes forward the development of leisure tourism.

He got the job at the end of last year, a few days before the State Council announced plans to reinvent Hainan as a premier international resort over the coming decade.

The resort provides him with free food and accommodation, plus a monthly salary of 2,500 yuan - an income equivalent to that of a local government official.

But while development has increased his salary, it has also caused the housing price to soar from an average of 4,000 yuan ($587) per sq m to nearly 10,000 yuan ($1,466) per sq m in two months.

"I had thought of buying an apartment and settling down in Haikou," Xing says.

"Now, it's almost out of the question."

But this isn't the worst part, Xing says.

"Hainan women are becoming materialistic," he explains.

"They would rather marry an old, rich guy who drives a Mercedes and lives in a villa than a poor, young guy like me. Life in Hainan is becoming more like that in mainland metropolises, such as Guangzhou."

Xing ran a clothing wholesale business in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, between 2006 and 2008.

After three years in the mainland city, Xing was able to return home with 150,000 yuan in his pocket. He planned to use the money to build a house for his parents in his hometown. Xing had never thought of leaving the island.

"You might be able to earn more, but you'll have to enslave yourself to earn a relatively comfortable life," he says.

Paradise lost?

Life simply slows down when you arrive in Hainan Island. He Dongping / For China Daily

"But how can you enjoy a so-called comfortable life when you must enslave yourself?"

Many natives of Hainan, the population of which stands at nearly 8.2 million, share Xing's frustration.

"Hainan is an island of leisure," says Zhuang Fei, whose ancestors came to the island from Fujian province's eastern coast.

"For centuries, pleasant weather and fertile land has provided a life without worrying about food. The nutrient-rich spring water from the volcanic area (in the east) brings longevity. In an agricultural society, this could be defined as happiness."

Owing to Hainan's seclusion from the outside world, locals have long enjoyed a carefree, self-sufficient lifestyle, says Zhuang, who works as a news agency photographer.

"We earn only what we need and enjoy what we have," he says.

Historically, the carefree culture has withstood many challenges from outside.

Since the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220), Hainan has been the place of exile for officials who have offended rulers and a base for mainland soldiers guarding the remote southern border. And it became a land of opportunity for mainland pioneers seeking their fortunes in the country's largest economic zone in the late 1980s.

"Most who move here soon adopted the relaxed mindset, just like me," says Chen Kai, a native of Hubei province who went to the province as a soldier in 1983.

"Life simply slows down when you arrive in the island."

However, the 45-year-old says he has also witnessed changes.

"When I first arrived, people didn't save. If they had 100 yuan, they would spend 98 yuan without hesitation," Chen says, smiling.

But he, like many, worry Hainan's lackadaisical island culture might not survive the tourism development rush.

Property prices, which jumped by 50 percent in Beijing and Shanghai last year, have risen by more than 200 percent in Hainan since last October, despite the provincial government's efforts to prevent speculation.

It's a familiar story to Burkhard Eiswaldt, a 60-year-old German businessman and artist who has lived in Haikou since 1988.

He recalls what happened when Hainan become one of the first areas permitted to develop commercial real estate in the early 1990s. Investment poured in over a two-month period and staged a full retreat two years later, rendering Haikou like "a deserted city after an earthquake".

The quake analogy is appropriate, he says, because, "It took the city more than 10 years to clear up the mess."

Paradise lost?

A luxurious wedding on a 60-million-yuan yacht in Haikou. Li Min / For China Daily

While Hainan's government has adopted measures to curb speculation and cool the property market, many locals, including Xing, are feeling the pinch of higher living costs.

"We are not against the idea of Hainan becoming a leisure tourism destination," Xing says.

"But we hate to see that tourists might end up stealing the leisure from our lives."

Retired China Tourism Institute professor Wang Xingbin believes the local government should incorporate Hainan's local culture into its tourism.

"Many travel not only to enjoy leisure but also to experience another culture," Wang says.

"That's why Hainan's government should involve residents in the development process. They embody local culture."

But Zhuang, the photographer, is unsure of whether or not that will happen, even though the local government is trying.

"If you see someone walking on the street in their pajamas in Shanghai, you'd call it local culture. But if someone did that in Hainan, people would consider it rude and sloppy," he says.

"People in Chengdu spend the whole day playing mahjong in tea houses, thereby earning their city the title as the Capital of Leisure.

"But when we Hainanese take our time eating breakfast or drinking tea in the afternoon, outsiders call us lazy."

Zhuang believes most people don't view locals' unhurried approach to life as culture.

"Soon or later, we might lose it because we don't respect it," he says.

"But when it's gone, Hainan will no longer be Hainan."