Hainan (海南; Hái-nâm in Hainanese, Hǎinán in Mandarin) is an island and the southernmost province of China, south of Guangdong province and across the Gulf of Tonkin from Vietnam. "Hainan" literally means "South of the Ocean". It has a thriving tourist industry and is being heavily promoted as "China's Hawaii".
The first known inhabitants of Hainan were a Tai–Kadai ethnic group known as the Li. Large scale ethnic Han settlement of Hainan did not occur until the Song Dynasty (960−1279), and continued up until the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The Li people were eventually pushed into the highlands by Han settlers and today, the island has a Han majority, mostly concentrated in the coastal plains, while the Li people remain the largest non-Han ethnic group, mostly concentrated in the southern highlands.
For much of its history, Hainan was considered a backwater and used as a place of exile for failed officials. It was administered by the Qing Dynasty and Republic of China as a prefecture of Guangdong Province. It became a separate province in 1988, making it China's smallest province, and the only island province administered by the PRC. The entire island has been declared a Special Economic Zone.
The climate is subtropical to tropical. In January and February, it gets thick fog, especially in coastal areas and the northern part of the island.
While the Hainanese diaspora is not as large as that of Fujian and Guangdong, they nevertheless form a significant minority among the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. Like the aforementioned two provinces, Hainan has benefitted substantially from overseas Chinese investment.
The island has been popular with Russian tourists for decades and now gets many tourists from the other cold parts of Europe as well. Hainan is undergoing heavy tourist-oriented development with various international hotel chains establishing resorts, especially in the Sanya area. These days, many wealthy Chinese from the northern provinces own second homes in Hainan, where they move to in the winter to escape the bitter cold that characterises much of northern China.
Hainan also administers the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which though controlled by China are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The main local language is Hainanese, which belongs to the Min family of Chinese dialects, but is not mutually intelligible with any of the others. Even other Chinese consider it difficult to learn as it employs many unusual consonants which have no equivalent in any other Chinese "dialects" or Western languages, and has an odd tone structure. Nevertheless, learn a little of the language if you can, as locals are very proud of their language, and even knowing a few basic greetings will get you acquainted with the locals much more easily. Hainanese also has dialectal variations between different parts of the island, and it is not uncommon for Hainanese from different parts of the island to converse in Mandarin instead, though the Wenchang dialect is considered to be the prestige dialect, and is generally used in news reports and understood throughout the island.
As anywhere in China, Mandarin is the lingua franca; nearly everyone can speak it with the exception of some of the elderly. Due to the proximity with Guangdong, some locals understand Cantonese as well. Hainan is also home to migrants from other parts of China, particularly in the winter months, who speak Mandarin but not Hainanese.
Hainan also has significant numbers of speakers both of other Chinese dialects — the Danzhou region has its own local dialect and there are Hakka speakers on the island — and of unrelated languages. The Li people, who are the original inhabitants and largest non-Han minority on the island, speak a language that is distantly related to Thai and Lao. There is also a Miao community on Hainan, who speak a language distantly related to Vietnamese and Khmer. Nevertheless, most younger people from these groups speak Mandarin as well.
As elsewhere in China, English is not widespread but some people speak it quite well. Staff at the main hotels and beach resorts will usually have a functional command of English. Hainan is a traditional destination for Russians escaping their winters, so many shop keepers and restaurant staff know some Russian, and much signage is in (bad!) Russian. However, trying to engage anyone in a conversation more often than not will prove fruitless.
- The hilly center of the island is home to various ethnic minorities, with many involved in the tourist industry.
- Much of the coast has beaches.
- 1 Haikou (海口) – in the north; the capital and largest city
- 2 Baoting (保亭) – toward the south, in the hills
- 3 Bo'ao (博鳌) – on the east coast, known for the Bo'ao Forum for Asia
- 4 Lingshui (陵水) – on the east coast, location of the Hainan incident (an American spy plane forced down)
- 5 Sanya (三亚) – in the south, main tourist destination
- 6 Wenchang (文昌) – on the north-east coast, the cradle of Hainanese culture, also hosting a spacecraft launch center for newer rockets
- 7 Wuzhishan (五指山) – in the central highlands
- 8 Danzhou (儋州) – in the northwest, with a distinct local dialect
- 9 Qionghai (琼海) – on the east coast, known for Jiaji duck, and the all-female company of the Chinese Red Army who fought to defeat the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War
- 10 Wanning (万宁) – on the east coast, a popular destination for surfers
- 11 Dongfang (东方) – on the west coast
- 12 Qiongzhong (琼中) – close to the geographical center of the island, location of Baihualing Falls, one of Hainan's biggest waterfalls
- 13 Baisha (白沙) – in the central highlands, center of Hainan's tea industry
- 1 Yalong Bay - resort area near Sanya
- Xiangshui or Perfume Bay - new resort area near Lingshui
- Jianfeng Ridge National Forest Park - located in Ledong County, said to contain the largest tropical rainforest in China
- 2 Bawang Ridge National Forest Park - located in Changjiang County, the last refuge of the Hainan black-crested gibbon
Hainan has its own visa regime and citizens of 59 countries can enter visa free for 30 days if arriving via Hong Kong or directly from outside Mainland China. You need to have registered with a Hainanese travel agency before arriving. See this website for details.
Hainan's main airport is located at Haikou (HAK IATA), the main hub of Hainan Airlines, which serves domestic flights to many major Chinese cities, as well as some international flights to other Asian cities. The airport at Sanya (SYX IATA) also serves domestic several international flights to other Asian cities, as well as intercontinental flights to Russia. There is a third, smaller airport at Qionghai (BAR IATA), though it only serves a small number of domestic flights and no international ones.
Trains run daily from Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai. The trains are loaded onto ferries to cross the sea with passengers remaining in the train cars. The trains stop at both Haikou and Sanya, as well as Dongfang, a smaller station between Haikou and Sanya.
There are no roads connecting Hainan and the mainland, though there are vehicular ferries doing so. If you catch a bus to Hainan, your bus will be loaded onto one of the ferries.
Haikou at the North end and Sanya at the South end are connected by three highways — East coast, West coast and through the hilly center. Unlike other expressways in Mainland China, there are no direct expressway tolls, as they are included in fuel cost. More-or-less any significant place on the island is on, or at least close to, one of these highways. As anywhere in China, there are buses to almost anywhere.
Three railways connect Haikou and Sanya. One is the old western ring railway, and the other two are the new high-speed western and eastern ring railways. High-speed trains run between Haikou and Sanya at up to 250 km/h, takes one hour and a half between the two cities.
As the smallest province in China with relatively flat landscape, Hainan is an ideal destination for long journey cycling trip. On the East Coast it has a 300km long national road (G223) connecting Haikou, Wenchang, Qionghai, Lingshui and Sanya. The route, which is packed with most famous beach resorts and tourist attractions, is the easiest ride and most popular among amateur cyclists. The Middle route crossing Wuzhishan (Five-Finger Hill) takes some more toil to go. While it is possible to ride along the West coast, this area is the least developed and more preparation may be needed.
- Sea Turtles 911. The only non-profit organization promoting sea turtle conservation in China, Sea Turtles 911's primary facility is a floating sea turtle hospital in Lingshui near Nanwan Monkey Island, as well as programs in Sanya and Haikou. While on Hainan Island visitors are welcome to volunteer with the sea turtles and the organization's educational programs.
- 1 Bin Lang Gu (梹榔谷), 224 National Rd, Baoting Lizumiaozuzizhixian, Hainan, China. A cultural village for the Li people (黎族), the largest non-Han ethnic minority of Hainan, and the original inhabitants of the island before large-scale Han settlement during the Song Dynasty.
- Sanya Beach - China's best-known beach area
- South Mountain, or Nanshan Tourism Area 南山 - a large Shaolin Buddhist temple complex along the southernmost point of the island. Many backpackers consider this as a tourist trap: the temple was built in 1988 and entrance fees are high.
- Gusong Village in Wenchang - an ancient, unique, beautiful, non-commercial traditional Hainanese village
- South Bay Monkey Island (also known as Nanwan Monkey Islet), Lingshui South Bay. Lingshui South Bay Monkey Island (also known as Nanwan Monkey Islet). Be wary of the monkeys that steal bags.
- Volcano Park and lava rock villages, about 15 km south of Haikou city, next to Shishan Town. The Volcano Park has an entrance fee of about ¥60. Lava rock villages are generally free, but if visiting Rongtang Protected Village pay the local elders ¥5.
The main visitor activities involve beaches and bars. The Sanya area is particularly well-provided with both, but there are some everywhere.
Hainanese cuisine is similar to that of neighbouring Guangdong, albeit with a number of tropical touches reflecting its climate. The relatively heavy use of coconuts is particularly notable.
- Wenchang chicken - although many people have heard of "Hainanese chicken rice", only the method of preparing the chicken originates from Hainan, from a dish known as Wenchang chicken, which is also considered to be the signature dish of Hainan throughout China. The method of cooking the rice was actually developed by overseas Hainanese after they migrated to Southeast Asia.
- Seafood - very good, very fresh and at reasonable prices
- Try betel nuts, which can make you high, though they're bad for your health.
- Coconut Rice Cakes (薏粑, yi bua in Hainanese) are a speciality snack of Hainan.
The Singapore-based firm Asia Pacific Breweries have a brewery on Hainan and their brands of beer, Tiger and Anchor, are common all over the island. As in anywhere else in China, a range of both Chinese and imported beers are widely available as well. Hainan also has a number of locally-brewed pineapple-based beers, odd but worth a try.
Unlike in northern China, heavy drinking is not part of traditional Hainanese culture. Beer drinking is common, however, and alcohol is widely available. Sanya is home to large communities of northern Chinese escaping the cold in their home provinces during the winter months, and baijiu is widely available to cater to that demographic.
The island is covered with coconut trees, so drinking fresh coconut water is a must. Coffee is also popular among the locals in Hainan due to the influence of returning overseas Hainanese from Southeast Asia, and the Xinglong area in Wanning is Hainan's main coffee-growing region.
Be very careful with water sports on Hainan. Government regulation of activities such as parasailing, diving, and boating on Hainan is lax, so staff often provide little or no training to customers, and the equipment can be shoddy. Without adequate safety precautions, these activities can be dangerous, and even fatal.
As Hainan is a major tourism destination, scams targeting tourists are relatively common, particularly in Sanya and Bo'ao. Be on your guard, as sometimes, even the operators of official tourist attractions are in cahoots with the scammers. Also be on your guard at eateries, as some of them have been known to charge unsuspecting tourists exorbitant prices; make sure you ask for a price list beforehand, and ensure that seafood is weighed in your presence.