China's sunny island offers food and accommodation with a Southeast Asian twist, Xu Lin reports.
Known for its marvelous tropical island scenery, Hainan is one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists, especially after domestic travel agencies suspended their overseas group tours due to COVID-19.
Apart from that, the province has many ancient villages that the government wants to renovate so as to attract tourists, in line with the country's rural vitalization strategy.
To date, China has added 6,819 villages to its national traditional village catalog due to its history and culture. The central government has offered some of the villages a fund of 3 million yuan ($462,000) for the preservation of its cultural heritage, so local governments have made this a priority.
Liu Simin, vice-president of tourism at the Beijing-based Chinese Society for Future Studies, says tourism is a vital way to preserve and utilize ancient villages.
"If tourism can tap a village's commercial value potential, villagers will be motivated to protect their hometown because they can also earn money from its preservation," he says.
Liu also says some rural areas can be protected as a whole and be opened as a scenic area to showcase authentic countryside scenery in China. Zhouzhuang town in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, is one such example.
"Some villages can be revitalized with its original cash crops such as tea and herbs, but for many rural areas, tourism is still an essential means. Mogan Mountain, which is known for its views and hotels, is a good example," he says.
To host guests who come to enjoy the clean air and beautiful scenery, villagers in Hainan can open restaurants and renovate their vacant houses into minsu, or Chinese style bed-and-breakfast homestays.
"Hainan should explore its traditional villages and map out preservation plans in accordance with their circumstances," Liu says.
In Hainan's Chengmai county, Longji village was built along the rolling mountains and is adjacent to a river. Like other ancient villages in the county, it is well known for its culture, and locals have built houses and tools with volcanic rocks for generations.
Longji's 200-year-old ancestral temples-Tongde Hall and Jiangxing Gong Hall-which were built next to each other, were worn down after years of going without repair and overgrown with weeds.
However, a 2019 renovation project has rejuvenated them with an innovative design. Using 80 trunks of Hainan's local timber trees, the trunks are built as a pillar to support a 900-square-meter transparent glass, protecting the temples from wind, typhoon and rain.
The project follows guidelines of the 1964 Venice Charter, which offers reliable direction for the preservation and restoration of ancient buildings.
With a mixture of traditional and modern construction materials, the original structure was preserved and the entire opening space was expanded with a glass roof connecting the two temples together. Hainan's abundant sunshine creates magnificent reflections of the white clouds and starry sky on the giant glass roof.
Ye Man, chief designer of Shanghai-based Civil Nova Group that is in charge of the design and construction of the renovation project, says it was not easy to restore the two temples to their original state as they were in disrepair for years.
"Why not simply preserve them on site? It looks like a modern square space, but when you look at it closely, you will be able to observe the delicate stone and wood carvings," she says.
Still, Ye believes it is necessary to preserve the original state of ancient architecture as much as possible, rather than using reinforced cement. On this basis, Ye and her team aim to repair them in a creative way.
"The two temples are like senior leaders of a clan, and the project is to literally crown them. It's like when you get a precious old jade, you will put it in an elegant box to protect it," she says.
The final phase of the project is coming up, and Ye hopes that the two ancestral temples will be open to the public, attracting tourists to the village.
"It's essential to preserve the ancient architecture in traditional villages, which are important tourism sites for Hainan. The rural revitalization strategy should not only focus on the economy, but also our cultural confidence," Ye says.
However, it is not easy to persuade the villagers to accept the avant-garde project.
As the two temples fell, they built modern architecture nearby as a substitute. To them, the temples are the village's scared property and it is hard for them to agree to open up the temples to the public.
It is a tradition for Hainan locals to prepare sacrifices and hold a ceremony honoring local gods during festivals. So the village committee invited senior villagers to hold such a ceremony and sought divine advice. They concluded that the project can be implemented.
"Villagers are conservative and opinions are divided about the project. So we have to use a traditional way to make a decision," says village head Zheng Tian'guang.
He says the project is good for the village's long-term development as a tourist destination, and villagers can also open homestays and offer fruit-picking as a tourist activity to increase their incomes.
"For the project, science conflicts with tradition, and it tells us that it's important to properly deal with culture conflict in any integration process," Ye says.
East meets exotic
Located in Qionghai city's Boao town, Liuke village used to be an important place along the ancient Silk Road. An ambitious ongoing 1 billion yuan project aims to renovate it into a tourist resort by 2024.
Infrastructure construction, sewage upgrade, environmental improvement, and repairs to an ancient port have been completed. The village had a soft opening to visitors free of charge since the National Day holiday in October, averaging about 20,000 visitors a month. It will be ready to welcome a larger number of tourists next year.
Zhong Yong, general manager of Hainan Bafangliuke Tourism Culture Development which invested in the project, says the main competitive edge of the tourism site is its unique culture, which cannot be duplicated.
"Our aim is to emphasize the characteristics of the village. Many of its villagers started to reside abroad, especially Southeast Asia, to make a living at the end of the 19th century," Zhong says.
"It takes a longer time to reap the rewards of investment in tourism. Once a traditional village makes itself stand out as a role model, more commercial capital will be attracted. Also, it's necessary to have a professional team for marketing and operation of the destination."
With an area of 2,645 square meters, the former residences of the Cai family in the village are a blend of traditional Chinese style architecture with Southeast Asian and Western elements, illustrating the history of pioneers leaving their homes for other countries to seek a living. The century-old architectural complex was declared a national cultural heritage site in 2006.
In 1934, Cai Xuesen and his three brothers finished the building of four magnificent residences after making their fortune in Indonesia. However, the complex was abandoned three years later as they hurriedly fled to Indonesia after the Japanese invaded Hainan.
Today, Cai's eldest granddaughter-in-law lives in the village and tells the glorious story of the mansions to visitors. More than 400 villagers still live in the village, with about 1,700 residing abroad.
The project expanded the Cai family's former residences by constructing a beautiful garden according to the requests of the family's descendants and the standards of the National Cultural Heritage Administration.
Zhong says they are building three types of minsu to meet the needs of different visitors-renovating old vacant residences of villagers into homestays, constructing artistic boutique hotels in exotic Southeast Asian styles and inviting companies of high-end minsu to the village.
Some guestrooms will be ready by mid-April. Tourists can even live in a transparent glass house that allows them to enjoy a splendid view of the starry sky at night.
Southeast Asian style restaurants will be opened and an orchard to plant fruits from Southeast Asia for fruit picking will be built.
The village is adjacent to Boao Lecheng International Medical Tourism Pilot Zone, which enjoys national preferential policies such as speeding up the import of medical equipment and medicine.
"Those who come to Lecheng for medical care and health maintenance can take a boat to visit the village for a getaway or for leisure. We will also offer traditional Chinese medicine therapy and 'medicinal cuisine'," Zhong says.
In a 50-year cooperation contract with the village committee, the company will offer land rentals and bonus distribution. It will also offer villagers work opportunities and train those who want to open homestays and restaurants.
Zhong is confident of the village's future as a tourist destination, especially when the annual Boao Forum for Asia, Lecheng medical tourism pilot zone and the nearby Boao airport will help bring in potential visitors.
He also says construction of the Hainan Free Trade Port is favorable news for tourism corporations, as preferential policies lower their operation costs and duty-free shopping also draws domestic tourists.