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Wenchang liftoff on course

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2008-04-10 07:11

 Wenchang liftoff on course

Wenchang's coastline is set to lure more tourists in the coming years. Photos by Huang Yiming

Wenchang city is reaching for the stars with its tourism development plan, the centerpiece of which is an outer space theme park built around a satellite launch pad to open in 2010.

And other big things are in store for this small town of 560,000 residents on Hainan province's northeast coast, which is revving up to reinvent itself from an industrial processing center into a holidaymaking haven. Plans include the creation of a new forest reserve, a burnishing of cultural sites, an expansion of rural tourism and the development along Wenchang's 207-km coastline - the longest in the island province.

"There will be three major locations in Hainan in the future," Wenchang Mayor Yan Zheng says. "To the south we'll have Sanya city, and its strategic location as a tourist destination has already been set. We'll have Haikou city to the north and we're about to put Wenchang on the map."

More than 200 billion yuan ($28.6 billion) has been earmarked for Wenchang's 20 tourism projects, nine of which have already been completed.

 Wenchang liftoff on course

An outer space theme park will be built around a satellite launch site located adjacent to the sea.

Yan is particularly starry-eyed about the space park, because he believes it would make the city a maverick among the country's travel spots.

"When the satellite launch pad opens to the public, we expect a flood of tourists to the city," the Harvard University-educated official says.

In fact, he says, they're already starting to trickle into the county, which boasts the most tourism resources in Hainan after Sanya.

"At an estimated 1.2 million, the number of tourists increased 17.2 percent year-on-year in 2007, when people heard the news that the satellite launch pad would be built in our city."

While discussions about the space center began in early 2002, the central government gave the nod last year. However, the discussions on their own boosted both tourist numbers and revenue by an average 15 percent from 2004 to 2007. Currently, tourism contributes roughly 7 percent of the city's total output, and that figure is set to increase.

Investment in the 407-hectare theme park is expected to exceed 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) and comes from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), its sole operator.

It would feature outer space-oriented exhibitions, research displays and entertainment, including facilities such as zero-gravity simulators. Visitors could also buy seats to watch satellite launches.

On Wenchang's main avenue, a large billboard depicting an astronaut against a starry background reads: "All citizens mobilize to become an international space city."

The city government, at least, is making ready. Yan says the push now is to improve infrastructure and services as well as attract experienced talent to this famed home of - "much more than" 1.2 million - overseas Chinese.

On the docket are a trans-island railway, which would cut travel time between the city and the provincial capital of Haikou from an hour and a half to 17 minutes, two expressways and two bridges. In addition, new hotels and tourism services are coming to town, and local residential areas are slated for government-subsidized facelifts.

Wenchang liftoff on course

"In the next few months, visitors to Wenchang will see construction sites everywhere," Yan says. Already, the streets are teeming with scuttling workers renovating the roads.

"The tourism industry is completely new to our city for now, so we take it as a golden opportunity for Wenchang to develop its economy," Yan says.

He explains Wenchang was left in the doldrums during Hainan's past two tides of development in the 1990s - one from industrialization and the other from a real estate boom that went bust.

"We were marginalized, because no highway passed through us," Yan says. "We contributed to Hainan's division of labor in many ways, but we weren't reaping as many benefits."

But the mayor explains this historical plight today heralds a bright future for Wenchang.

"Exactly because of that marginalization, and even backwardness, our tourism resources were completely preserved."

And now, Yan says: "Wenchang is poised to become the back garden of Haikou."

The city also plans to develop its silicon industry, as it is known for having the best sand for crystal in China. In addition, it would boost its wind power generation and aquaculture.

"But the main industries of Wenchang are poised to become tourism and real estate," Yan says.

He explains the announcement of the launch pad caused real estate values to rocket over the past three years from 200,000 yuan ($28,600) per sq m to more than 2.4 million yuan ($343,000) per sq m. Land prices increased from 10,000 yuan ($1,400) per hectare to 33,300 yuan ($4,600) per hectare in the same period.

Much of the market's momentum comes from hotels, which are moving into the area. The hub for this is Bamen Bay, one of the city's 40 bays, which the government plans to rebuild to "resemble" Haikou's Victoria Bay.

"In the past, we encouraged foreign investment, and anyone who would invest in our city was welcomed. But now, we can choose among investors," Yan says.

"Many potential investors have come to investigate investment opportunities. Before, they would come and go away, but now, they make decisions to invest immediately."

However, while investors are quick to set up shop in Wenchang now, Yan says it will take some time after the space park opens for the city to realize its sky-high ambitions.

"We estimate it'll take about five years to develop our tourism to a standard of high-end tourism," Yan says. "Wenchang in the next 15 years will become a pillar of Hainan's history. We can't say that for sure about 10 years, but in 15 years, we're certain of it."

Wenchang liftoff on course

(China Daily 04/10/2008 page19)

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