Millions of domestic tourists descend to China’s southernmost island province of Hainan, presenting a surreal contrast to grim hospital scenes, closed restaurants and a sweltering home quarantine elsewhere in a virus-ravaged world.
Known home as “Hawaii of China,” the island, the size of Taiwan, has been coronavirus-free for six months, luring avid shoppers to duty-free malls, couples looking for a subtropical setting for wedding photos and surfers just looking to “breathe free”.
October arrivals of 9.6 million, according to official data, topped the figure of the previous year, before the pandemic struck, by 3.1%, although foreign visitors fell 87%. It was a long way from February, when arrivals had fallen by almost 90%.
The rapid rise in tourism shows that the Chinese consumer sector may be shedding its virus-induced sleep as the closure of many international borders pushes travelers to destinations such as traditionally more expensive Hainan. than most countries in Southeast Asia.
Tourism spending has gained a head start since a new franchise spending limit of 100,000 yuan ($ 15,186) for travelers took effect in July, up from 30,000 yuan ($ 4,592) earlier. .
Hainan raked in 12 billion yuan ($ 1.8 billion) in sales over the next four months, reaching 214.1% on the year, almost on par with 2019 sales of 13.61 billion. dollars ($ 2 billion).
Tourists browsing Haitang Bay Duty Free Mall in the island town of Sanya were amazed at the queues outside luxury brand boutiques from Chanel to Gucci, with some likening the scene to a garage sale.
“It’s crazy – we weren’t expecting so many people,” said a visitor to the southwestern city of Chengdu, who only gave her Ms. Xie’s name.
But she was ready to stand in line for more than 30 minutes in the 12 million square foot (1.1 million square meters) mall just to enter a Gucci store.
“Seriously, is Gucci that cheap?” With so many people online I would have thought it was free, ”said the 32-year-old.
A 53-year-old woman nicknamed Liu, who was visiting Thailand or Malaysia around this time of year, said Sanya had been a good substitute. She paid over 14,000 yuan ($ 2,143) for a Gucci handbag.
“Such a flight!” said the native of Chongqing, another city in the southwest.
“We have already bought cosmetics in Haikou and we are here for the bags,” she added, referring to the capital of the island.
As the “home” economy has grown in China due to the global pandemic, Morgan Stanley estimates “re-substantiated consumption” could reach as high as $ 165 billion this year.
Although the 46 million visitors Hainan received from January to October were well below the figure of 83 million domestic and foreign tourists in 2019, Chinese travelers are expected to extend the tourism boom into winter.
Reflecting demand, the average daily booking rate in Sanya climbed 43% in November from a year earlier to $ 151, and jumped 51% to $ 190 for December, according to analysis firm AirDNA, which tracks reservations on Airbnb and Vrbo.
While the number of properties with at least one night booked increased by 7% in November, the figure for December had already reached 85% of the level of the previous year.
Hainan is also one of the top domestic travel destinations for the upcoming Lunar New Year in February, according to analytics firm ForwardKeys.
On a beach dotted with five-star hotels along Yalong Bay, dozens of newlyweds got ready for elaborate wedding sessions.
The pandemic has thwarted plans for Xia Weini, 30, and her 28-year-old husband Wang Yu, from far west Xinjiang, to visit the Thai island of Phuket to pose for their photos.
“Xinjiang is probably the most landlocked place in China, so we always wanted to get married near the sea,” Xia said.
They ended up spending over 10,000 yuan ($ 1,530) in Sanya for the photos.
Aside from the glitter, Hainan offers a sense of normalcy which is a powerful draw.
Business is turning out so good in Houhai Village, a surf spot about a 40-minute drive from central Sanya, that many are turning their homes into surf clubs, said Che Linxin, brand manager at Jile Surf. Inn.
As surfing spreads among young people trapped in their homes during the pandemic, the six-year-old club has attracted surfers, musicians and painters among its patrons, who have tripled from last year.
“There is no off season in Sanya this year. Every day has been high season since our first reopening in March, ”added Che.
Yanzi, a 25-year-old tour guide from Beijing, is a regular.
“I had big headaches when I was in Beijing. Maybe it’s the air or the fact that my company doesn’t even pay me my base salary, ”she said.
“But here I can just walk around in public in my bikini, bathe in the sun and breathe freely.”