BEIJING: China plans to establish a huge free trade zone in its southernmost province of Hainan in a move that could see the island challenge Hong Kong and Singapore for talent and investment.

The initiative was announced last Friday to coincide with President Xi Jinping’s visit to Haikou, the provincial capital, to mark the 30th anniversary of Hainan’s establishment as a province since it was separated from Guangdong in 1988.

With its pleasant climate and sandy beaches, Hainan is often described as “China’s Hawaii” and the official plan also involves turning the island into a global tourism hotspot, South China Morning Post reported.

Xi highlighted Hainan’s “special advantages”, such as its status as China’s biggest special economic zone, its geography and ecological environment, as reasons to make it a pilot for wider reform and opening up to world trade.

He urged the local authorities to speed up reforms and said Hainan would build a modern economy in areas ranging from artificial intelligence, big data and the internet to finance, healthcare and tourism, among other activities.

Direct international flights to the island will be increased and duty-free shopping will be expanded to the whole island, coupled with plans to encourage foreign talent and technology experts to make Hainan their base.

This will include measures to make it easier for overseas talent to find work and acquire permanent residency there.

According to Bloomberg, the tourism and gambling sectors could become major beneficiaries of the plan to open up Hainan, which last year attracted just 55 million tourists, or about 1% of the five billion domestic trips made in China.

Amid reports that the Chinese government has been considering whether to legalise online gaming and sports betting in Hainan, Bloomberg said that “any move to ramp up tourism in Hainan or open it up to gambling would reverberate within the global travel industry”.

Sourced from South China Morning Post, Bloomberg; additional content by WARC staff