Far from the hoopla and gathering crowds in Beijing, a sport missing from the Olympic roster is helping to transform China's Hainan Island into one of Asia's top tourist destinations.
Already 16 golf courses - including a handful that rank among China's best - have opened across a stunningly diverse tropical landscape that includes palm-fringed beaches on the South China Sea, a rugged mountainous interior, mangrove reserves and a protected rain forest. Local officials hope to add as many as 30 courses in the next 20 years.
The goal is to draw North American visitors to a destination that marketers expect will soon rival the popularity of Indonesia's Bali and Thailand's Phuket. In the port city of Sanya, for example, located on Yalong Bay at the southern end of Hainan, such luxury hotel brands as Sheraton, Hilton, Marriot and Ritz-Carlton crowd a beachfront that just a few years ago was deserted except for the shacks of fishermen.
"Hainan Island is still unknown to most North American travellers," says Kenny Wong, managing director of Vancouver-based Meridian Holidays, the first Canadian tour operator to offer golf packages to the island. "But the potential is tremendous. The hotels are world-class and Hainan's courses match almost anything found in Asia."
Located 48 kilometres across the Qiongzhou Strait from the mainland's southern rim, the volcanic island dubbed the "Oriental Hawaii" has joined most of China in embracing a game once banned by Chairman Mao as decadent and elitist. An estimated 500,000 upwardly mobile and increasingly Westernized Chinese have taken up golf - known as "green opium" for its addictive qualities - since the first course was built in 1984 after the Cultural Revolution.
Robert Trent Jones Jr., Jack Nicklaus and other internationally famous golf architects have led the building of more than 300 courses on the mainland, including the 12 found at Mission Hills Resort, the world's largest golf facility. Occupying more than 15 square kilometres in the city of Shenzhen, Mission Hills (the host of the annual World Cup of Golf through 2018) is the proudest golfing achievement thus far of a resurgent nation determined to do everything bigger and better than everyone else.
Yet, despite golf's booming popularity, there are increasingly vocal critics in China who wonder if an overcrowded country of 1.4 billion can afford to lose so much valuable land to what is, after all, an essentially frivolous Western pastime. In response to these concerns, Beijing, where 38 courses compete in China's busiest golf market, as well as several other regions, have temporarily banned new course construction.
But officials on Hainan Island, which in 1988 was declared a Special Economic Zone to spark investment, are enthusiastically promoting the building of the two dozen or more championship courses they believe are needed to help fill the 50 new hotels and resorts planned for the island in the next decade.
The working model for the most ambitious of these new layouts is Yalong Bay Golf Club, a stunningly beautiful Robert Trent Jones Jr. design near Sanya that in 2005 captured the golf world's attention by hosting the European Tour's TCL Classic.
Shaped like a giant dragon's claw, the 7,196-yard course mixes links-style and parkland holes - all defined by marshes and dense jungle, from which a very large snake will occasionally slither and startle golfers. Towering over a course ranked among Asia's best is a palatial modernist clubhouse built from light-brown volcanic stone.
Nearby is the almost equally acclaimed Sun Valley Golf Club, a 7,875-yard monster offering views of the surrounding mountains and the South China Sea. Combining an eclectic mix of design elements (including Arizona-style waste areas of sand and cacti), the layout by JMP Golf Design Group ends with a wallop on the 18th hole, a par six measuring 828 yards off the back tee.
Another must-play course is Ocean Bay Golf Club, a gorgeous oceanfront layout by Scott Miller, about 60 minutes east of Sanya in Wan'ning City. The course's unforgettable back nine is set on a dramatic headland jutting into South Swallow Bay, where the crashing waves also attract surfers from around the world.
And 30 minutes up the coast from Ocean Bay is Hainan Boao Golf & Country Club, a dramatic Bili Yo Ji design on an island in the Wanquan River. Frequently in play, the twisting river shapes a mostly links-style design where native grasses dance in the breeze beyond numerous bunkers.
Most of Hainan Island's new courses will be carved from the marshes and jungle surrounding Sanya, which in recent years has surpassed Haikou, the provincial capital at the island's northern tip, as a tourism hub.
Sanya's growth has been spurred in part by the build-up to the Beijing Games. It was here that the Olympic torch began the first leg of its marathon relay through China after a protest-plagued overseas journey. The city has also spent lavishly on special promotions, including an estimated $4-million annually since 2003 to host the Miss World beauty pageant.
The results can be seen on Sanya's waterfront and throughout the busy downtown, where affluent Chinese toting digital cameras and wearing flamboyant beachwear are indulging their new-found passion for Western-style tropical vacations.
More than 18 million Chinese visited the island last year, along with significant numbers of Taiwanese and South Koreans. Also growing rapidly is the Russian market, with 10 flights a week arriving from Moscow and St. Petersburg during the winter.
For travellers already vacationing or doing business in China, Hainan Island is a quick hop. Frequent direct flights are offered from Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and other cities.
So far, though, only a handful of North Americans have made the trek to a wildly beautiful island whose attractions include river rafting on the upper reaches of the Wanquan River; the colourful mountain villages of the Li, the island's original inhabitants, whose elders still wear native dress and elaborately tattoo their faces and bodies; and hiking and rock climbing in Jianfengling National Forest Park, one hour west of Sanya, the largest and best preserved primeval tropical forest in China.
But marketers are confident that Hainan Island's one-two knockout punch of white sand beaches and world-class golf will inevitably crack the North American market. "It may take a while," Kenny Wong says. "But the formula almost never fails."
Pack your clubs
No direct flights are offered from North America to Hainan Island. But frequent flights to Sanya and Haikou are available on Dragonair ( http://www.dragonair.com) and China Southern ( http://www.flychinasouthern.com) from Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and other mainland cities.
YALONG BAY GOLF CLUB 800-876-1868; http://www.yalongbaygolfclub.com. This Robert Trent Jones Jr. design near Sanya mixes links-style and parkland holes. Green fees start at $130, including a caddy.
SUN VALLEY GOLF CLUB 86 898 8856 4488; http://www.sunvalleygolfresort.com. This eclectic layout by JMP Golf Design Group offers views of the surrounding mountains and the South China Sea. Green fees start at $132, including a caddy.
OCEAN BAY GOLF CLUB 86 898 8898 6649; http://www.sanyaweb.com. An oceanfront design by Scott Miller located east of Sanya. Green fees start at $111, including a caddy.
HAINAN BOAO GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB 86 898 6277 8819; http://www.boaogolf.com. A dramatic Bili Yo Ji design located on an island in the Wanquan River. Green fees from $129, including caddy.
For more information on China, visit http://www.tourismchina-ca.com or call 866-599-6636.