Sanya's extended tourism season reflects the full extent of Chinese travel enthusiasm in post-epidemic era
Published: Feb 13, 2023 05:12 PM
Tourists enjoy a holiday at the beach in Sanya, Hainan Province, on February 3, 2023. Photo: IC

Tourists enjoy a holiday at the beach in Sanya, Hainan Province, on February 3, 2023. Photo: IC

In addition to sunshine, sea waves and coconut palms, a surging human tide has become the most distinct and enduring label of Sanya in South China's Hainan Province.

As one of the most popular domestic winter destinations, Sanya's hot tourism market shows no signs of slowing down long after the Spring Festival and Lantern Festival holidays. The Global Times learned from several travel platforms that some high-end hotels were charging as much as 5,000 to 6,000 yuan ($732-878) per night over the holidays, and prices are yet to dip after the festive season, while many popular hotels are still fully booked. Industry insiders said the situation will last until after Valentine's Day or even the end of the spring season.

During the Spring Festival holidays, Sanya received more than 1.6 million tourists, an increase of more than 600,000 from pre-pandemic 2019 levels, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

According to a report by Hainan Daily on February 11, since the Spring Festival holidays, total tourism bookings in Hainan increased by 22 percent year-on-year, hotel bookings increased by 20 percent, and scenic spot ticket sales increased by 57 percent. What is usually the golden week of Hainan tourism has now become a "golden month" and the trend is expected to grow into a "golden season."

Sanya has topped the list of China's most popular long-term travel destinations, with tourism-related booking volumes remaining high, data from,a leading Chinese online travel service provider, showed on February 3.

Industry insiders contacted by the Global Times noted that from the Spring Festival to the upcoming international Valentine's Day, Sanya tourism has ushered in an extended version of its peak season, which reflects Chinese people's enthusiasm for tourism after China optimized its COVID-19 prevention and control policies, promoting the steady recovery of the tourism market.

It also provides new development opportunities for Sanya, which utilized the epidemic-induced slump period to formulate planned upgrades for several scenic spots and hotels to build up Sanya's tourism industry capacities in a bid to take the lead in recovery, injecting great confidence into the local tourism industry. 

Persistence with happiness

Passengers wait in lines to check in at the Sanya Phoenix International Airport in South China's Hainan Province on January 17, 2023. Photo: Lin Xiaoyi/GT

Passengers wait in lines to check in at the Sanya Phoenix International Airport in South China's Hainan Province on January 17, 2023. Photo: Lin Xiaoyi/GT

"We are busy at almost every moment," Yang Na, the general manager of the Sanya Phoenix International Airport Ground Service Department told the Global Times, noting that since the end of December 2022, when the national epidemic prevention and control policy was optimized and adjusted, the airport has witnessed an explosive increase in inbound and outbound flights, and the increase in volume is expected to continue.

The increase in passenger numbers witnessed at the airport over the festival arguably epitomizes a return to normalcy after a three-year hiatus due to the epidemic.

Throughout the weeklong holidays from January 21 to January 27, the Sanya Phoenix International Airport logged 2,800 aircraft takeoffs and landings. Passenger traffic volume logged was 523,000, and its average load factor - a gauge of how well airlines are filling available seats - hit 88 percent and the number of passengers carried per airline averaged 180, topping the national rankings for airports with an annual passenger throughput of above 10 million, industry data showed. 

"We all work non-stop to strengthen the services of inquiry guidance, passenger diversion, and order maintenance in the terminal, committing to providing passengers with a reassuring and comfortable travel service experience by air. But when we look at the passengers with their luggage, or anticipating their arrival, or happy at their departure, we feel our hard work is actually paying off," Yang said.

Yang will not forget that in August 2022, Sanya was subjected to a wave of COVID-19 outbreaks, which meant a significant drop in flights at Sanya's Phoenix International Airport.

On December 5, 2022, Sanya announced that it would no longer implement classification epidemic control management for people from outside the province. Within one hour of the announcement, the search popularity of Sanya on Ctrip increased by 174 percent. The next day, 95 percent of Sanya's hotels were fully booked up compared to the month before. From December 7 to 18 that year, air ticket bookings to Sanya increased by more than 80 percent month-on-month.

Yang's department is the one that deals most with passengers in the airport. "Currently, without the need for heavy protective gear, people are able to get closer to each other," she said.

Yang pointed out that despite the end of the Spring Festival holidays, the number of flights and passenger flow at the Sanya airport have remained fairly high, and Sanya's peak tourism season is expected to last until March or April.

Shi Yihan, a store manager at the Armani cosmetics and perfume store at the Sanya International Duty-Free Shopping Complex, has all hands on deck "ready to go" at all times.

"In order to cope with the number of customers, which is several times higher than in previous years, our 13 staff members worked full-time for more than eight hours a day during the Spring Festival and Lantern Festival holidays. In addition, there were several part-time customer service staffers and volunteers assigned by our company to help handle customer volume," Shi said.

Although two weeks have passed since the end of the 2023 Spring Festival holidays, when you walk into Sanya's duty-free shopping malls, even during the lunch hour, there are long queues in front of many luxury brand stores. Because of the upcoming Valentine's Day holiday, many couples are on the hunt for romance-themed purchases such as pairs of rings, pairs of watches, perfume, and cosmetics.

Shi noted that in order to deal with the soaring consumption boom of perfume and cosmetics, the shopping Complex has set up an extra five to six temporary cash counters. At the counters handling high passenger flow, customer service staff use mobile POS machines to cut customer wait time.

Since January, Sanya International Duty-Free Shopping Complex has made full sales promotions during the Spring Festival, Lantern Festival, and Valentine's Day among other festivals, increasing the sales staff in each store and increasing the stock of hot duty-free items.

Industry data showed that the number of customers visiting the Sanya International Duty-Free Shopping Complex over the weeklong festival was up to 22 percent higher than in the same period in 2022.

According to Haikou Customs statistics, during the Lantern Festival on February 5 alone, the amount of duty-free shopping on the outlying islands reached 165 million yuan ($24.2 million) from a catalog of 160,000 items.

"The hardest days are over," Shi said.

"In the most difficult of times, only one or two customers would visit the store. Now, in our store, every salesperson is surrounded by customers, and there are always more than 10 people waiting in line to pay," Shi recalled.

Shi said she forewarned her employees to be mentally prepared to stick to their high-volume, high-intensity workload until after Valentine's Day. "We cherish the current surge in business, but also believe that such a lively scene will continue."

Build up strength to face challenges

Vehicles and tourists throng to a major duty-free shopping mall in Sanya on January 15, 2023. Photo: Li Qiaoyi/GT

Vehicles and tourists throng to a major duty-free shopping mall in Sanya on January 15, 2023. Photo: Li Qiaoyi/GT

Sanya's tourism consumption from the Spring Festival to Lantern Festival holidays this year showed a long-tail effect, which is a microcosm of the recovery of tourism consumption in China's post-epidemic era.

Industry insiders pointed out that from the downturn in the second half of 2022 to the great rebound this year, Hainan's tourism industry has achieved continuous improvement in performance and reputation, mainly through the government's assistance, inspection, and rectification of the tourism market.

"After the end of the Spring Festival holidays, Sanya ushered in a staggering peak. Market regulation work did not, and cannot even be slightly relaxed," Zhao Changsheng, director of the market management department at the Sanya Tourism, Culture, Radio, Television, and Sports Bureau, told the Global Times.

At times, pent-up consumer passion has resulted in surprising scenes.

Media statistics show that from the Christmas period in December 2022 to January 20, Sanya was on Sina Weibo's list of hot search keywords 27 times, 18 of which were searches about tourism in Sanya, including results for a hotel room priced at 200,000 yuan a night, to comical and chaotic scenes of customers jostling for space in long queues, and the tragic in news about drowning accidents.

Zhao is mainly responsible for liaising with relevant departments to carry out tourism market regulation and rectification work. From the beginning of the Spring Festival holidays to the present day, Zhao has not only done a good job on duty, but has also led the team in carrying out market supervision, and in dealing with complaints.

Every morning, Zhao visits tourism-related enterprises, especially along seaside areas to carry out safety inspections and make inspection records; in the afternoon, he visits areas and industries in which customers have lodged a large number of complaints to conduct inspections and crack down on illegal or irregular business practices. And then in the evening, he compiles a summary of the day's activities, and files the report with relevant rectification departments. 

"Often throughout the day, we are too busy to even eat a hot meal. But to see tourists happy and safe is worth all the hard work," Zhao said.

Reviewing the last three years, Zhao noted that due to the epidemic's impact, the tourism industry in Sanya took a heavy hit. Tourism-related enterprises were in dire straits as they faced multiple operational challenges. In order to ease operating pressures on enterprises, local authorities have set up a number of special subsidies aimed at Sanya's tourism market. 

At the same time, the epidemic-induced slump period was utilized to formulate upgrading plans for several scenic spots and hotels to add value to tourism products. Likewise, there was increased industry staff training to build up Sanya's tourism industry capacities in a bid to take the lead in recovery, Zhao noted.

Shi mentioned that after a period of internal adjustment and upgrading during the epidemic, many former customers who returned to the duty-free mall after a lapse of three years reported that they had a better shopping experience in Sanya.

When talking about her new year's wish, Shi hopes that the construction of the Hainan Free Trade Port and international tourism Island in 2023 will add even more value to customer experience, attract even more domestic tourists, and keep maintain high consumer spending in Sanya.

Behind the stellar flight and hotel booking numbers and high room booking rates was a revamped seasonal pursuit of warmth among people notably from northern China, Zhang Lingyun, a member of the academic committee of the China Tourism Academy, told the Global Times.

Of the lingering concerns among industry insiders is a fear that consumers will lose interest in Sanya upon the resumption of pilot outbound group tours to a selection of countries and regions, beginning on February 6.

But factoring in visa applications and other mandatory procedures for outbound travel, Sanya certainly retains its magnetic charm for domestic passengers who fancy a limitless experience, Zhang reckoned.

As part of the free trade port master plan, Hainan is set to become an international tourism and consumption hub by 2025 and an influential global tourism and consumption destination by 2035. Sanya is surely a significant part of the tourism vision, with picturesque beaches and ornate duty-free retailers underpinning its attractiveness.

"Next, in the post-epidemic era, Sanya will continue to summarize its experience and seize new opportunities. Centering on the new trend of the upgrading of tourism consumption demand, Sanya will continuously strengthen and improve the governance capacity of the tourism market, strive to enrich the product supply, provide more diversified products and services for the tourists, and strive to build itself into an international tourism resort," Zhao said.