China’s Hawaii goes big on ‘slow luxury’

Long serving as China’s beachy escape, Hainan Island’s resort destination is doubling down on its luxury offerings and entertainment attractions

At the Rosewood Sanya hotel, a paperweight resembling a large snail adorns many of the tables and shelves. ‘It’s a reminder to slow down – you’re in Sanya,’ says Fan Li, the hotel’s communications manager.

That makes sense; Sanya is China’s tropical holiday destination, after all. But while tourists come to this town on Hainan Island to live the snail life – lounging on beaches and playing rounds of 18 holes on the world-class golf courses – Sanya’s development is moving at a sprinting pace.

And right now, the attention is on Haitang Bay, a slice of coastline poised to become Sanya’s next tourism hotspot. The area has been loftily branded National Bay by the government, signifying the officially backed, deliberate plan to build it up. The view from above Haitang Bay is a mix of tropical vegetation, a concentration of tall, shiny hotels and clusters of construction cranes, all flanked by expanses of water.

‘Haitang Bay will have facilities like a hospital, a nightclub, a cinema and a huge water park,’ says Li, as we stand on the Rosewood’s 14th-floor balcony, which overlooks most of the area. ‘It’s a huge project for Sanya, and people have high expectations.’

As incongruent as it may seem, Haitang Bay is going in the direction of glitzy Dubai. The water park under construction is being built by the same company behind the Middle Eastern metropolis’ striking water-themed resort complex Atlantis, The Palm (part of the development shaped like a palm tree from above). Atlantis Sanya follows the same concept, incorporating an enormous aquarium that’s also a lagoon, plus palatial interiors and a water park. The towering, curved, 1,300-plus-room Atlantis hotel opens this month, with five guest rooms that are below water and feature views into the aquarium.

The water park is expected to be operational later this year, and much of Haitang Bay’s development will be based around supporting tourism drawn by the splashy attraction.

For decades, Hainan Island has been neatly summed up as the Hawaii of China. The description evokes all the correct ideas – sunny, warm, an island distinct from the rest of the country it belongs to – and for years, visitors have come from the northern latitudes to China’s southernmost province to escape the winter cold. The place they set their sights on is Sanya.

Russians start to head down at the first snow, followed by Beijing residents, and then, as the cold creeps farther, the Shanghainese start to arrive.
The first part of Sanya to get built up, in the early 1990s, was Dadonghai, a popular beach town lined with snack stalls and seafood restaurants. Loudspeakers emit an endless stream of safety warnings in Mandarin, English and Russian. On the water, there’s banana boating and jet skiing. It’s where the city centre and nightlife is.

Then they developed Yalong Bay, the next cove over. This is where many of the world’s big hotel companies like The Ritz-Carlton and Park Hyatt moved in, forming an exclusive getaway catering to high-end travellers seeking a family-friendly beach holiday. Guests are ensconced within the resorts’ own plots of sprinkler-maintained lawns. St Regis Sanya Yalong Bay Resort even has its own yacht-filled marina. The downside of Yalong Bay, however, has been lack of things to do outside the hotels, despite the opening of an outlet shopping mall last year and a seafood market that’s coming soon.

Sanya China luxury holiday

The planners of Haitang Bay are looking to do things differently. Already the area has a spaceship-like convention centre, and it’s the permanent venue for the annual Sanya Forum, a prestigious gathering of business and political elites. A military hospital that opened a few years ago is touted as a state-of-the-art facility and is part of a plan to attract medical tourism. The water park is coming. And once the high-speed train circling Hainan Island opens all its stops, it will be more convenient to get to Haitang Bay from Sanya airport than the current hourlong journey by car.

‘None of this was here 10 years ago,’ says the chauffeur who picked me up at the airport, as we approach Haitang Bay’s towering hotels.

Sanya Edition opened in Haitang Bay in 2016, the first Chinese resort under the avant-garde Edition brand. The hotel made a statement with its complete departure from old-school opulence. It is frequently described as wang hong, which means social-media hot, thanks to the photogenic entrance framed by rows of bamboo (albeit artificial) over a decorative pool and the hotel’s futuristic, understated white interiors. ‘The hotel’s style fits today,’ says Chia Ning Wu, Sanya Edition’s director of marketing communications. ‘It’s not classic luxury with English butlers. Instead we try to complement the environment with the right scenery and the right service level.’

The wide-open spaces and resort vibe of Sanya have meant hotels could build bigger and with more ambitious designs. Sanya Edition’s main pool spans a shocking two hectares – large enough that part of it is used for water sports – and its guest rooms come across as experiments in minimalism. The modernity seems to sit just fine with the young families at the poolside, where pop music can be heard coming from the kids’ areas. ‘Travellers coming to Haitang Bay are getting more mature; they can accept new concepts more easily,’ says Wu. ‘Talking to them, we can tell they have travelled a lot and have studied or lived abroad.’

Sanya China luxury holiday

Then the Rosewood Sanya, which opened late last year, set a new standard of luxury. It is now Haitang Bay’s tallest building, housing the hotel on the lower 14 floors and residences in the 19 floors above. An infinity pool wraps around the hotel’s roof, with a sprawling family-friendly pool surrounded by a lush maze of a garden on the ground floor. All rooms face the ocean, where in the distance lies Wuzhizhou island, a day-trip spot for diving and other watersports. And the Fretti Italian bed linens’ 600 thread count? ‘It’s currently the highest quality on the island,’ say Li. I can’t say I’ve been able to confirm this claim.

And then there is the snail. Haitang Bay might be fast fulfilling its ambitions, but for visitors, the sea and palm trees are ever-present reminders that you’re in Sanya – time to slow down.

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