Back in the Qing Dynasty (up to 1911), Hainan was considered a backwater and used as a place of exile for failed officials. It was administered as a prefecture of Guangdong Province.
Now it is a separate province, China's smallest province, and the only island province administered by the PRC. It is being heavily promoted as "China's Hawaii". The entire island has been declared a Special Economic Zone. 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.
- 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.
- Haikou (海口) - in the North, the capital
- Baoting (保亭) - toward the South, in the hills
- Bo'ao (博鳌) - on the East coast
- Lingshui (陵水) - on the East coast, place where the Hainan incident (an American spy plane forced down) occurred
- Sanya (三亚) - in the South, main tourist destination
- Wenchang (文昌) - in the north-east coast of Hainan Island
- Wuzhishan (五指山) - in the central highlands
- Yalong Bay - resort area near Sanya
- Xiangshui or Perfume Bay - new resort area near Sanya
Haikou and Sanya have airports with regular flights to various Chinese cities. There are also some flights from Southeast Asia. There is a high-speed train that serves Haikou's Meilan Airport. See Get around section below.
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.
You can also reach Hainan by boat. Buses take the ferry.
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. 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.
Two railways connect Haikou and Sanya. One is the old western ring railway, and the other one is the new high-speed eastern ring railway. Another high-speed western ring railway is under construction. 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 Wushishan (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.
The main local language is Hainanese; even other Chinese considered 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. They realise that Hainanese is difficult even for native speakers of other Chinese "dialects", and much more so for foreigners, so they'll politely correct any pronunciation errors you make. Hainanese also has dialectal variations between different parts of the island, though the Wenchang dialect is considered to be the prestige dialect, and is generally used in news reports and understood throughout the island.
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 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, which continues to speak the Miao language. Nevertheless, most younger people from these groups are also able to speak Hainanese and 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.
- 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.
- Sanya Beach - one of China's best-known beach areas
- 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 recently built 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.
- Crocodile Farms in Sanya. Under construction - will be available to tourists in the future
- Volcano Park and lava rock villages, about 15km 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.
- 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 what is today Singapore and Malaysia.
- Seafood - very good, very fresh and at reasonable prices
- Try betel nuts, which can make you high
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.
See the drink section of the China article for information on other booze; Hainan is much like any other province for this.
The island is covered with coconut trees. So drinking fresh coconut milk is a must!
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.