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Sanya, China, has great potential to become a world-class city by leveraging the considerable economic strength of its resort area to better benefit the entire urban area, reinforcing it as a place fo­­cused on a high quality of life for residents as well as a high-quality experience for visitors, according to an international group of land use and urban development experts convened in August 2013 through ULI’s Advisory Services program.

The panel of industry leaders offered advice to the city of Sanya on how to better connect its beachfront resorts with the rest of the city, entice tourists to visit other areas in the city, and expand economic activity. The main takeaway: to evolve into a world-class resort as well as a world-class city, Sanya must focus intently on fundamentals such as improved safety and mobility, public/private partnerships, environmental preservation, diverse recreational and entertainment amenities, an emphasis on healthy and distinctive food, a distinguishing brand, and, in particular, development that accommodates growth and conserves land. The visit marked the second time that the Institute’s assistance has been sought by municipal officials in Sanya: in 2000, an Advisory Services panel advised the city on revitalization and urban development issues.

SONY DSCSanya, a city of 600,000 on the south side of Hainan Island, has an extraordinarily high number of luxury hotels. The resort area currently has over 15,000 rooms—and more than 35,000 are expected to be available by the end of 2016. The sheer scale of development convinced the panel that Sanya must evolve from its current practice of project-specific development review to a more strategic approach. The panel process included extensive tours of the resort area and urban core, as well as numerous interviews with community stakeholders representing a broad range of interests and demographics.

The panelists identified the area’s strengths, which include a large market of young, affluent consumers who live close to the area; minimal competition with mainland China; ample natural resources; a strong commitment to tourism; stable core industries based on fishing and agriculture; an affordable labor force; a growing university population; and a nearby airport. However, panelists noted that these strengths are offset in part by several weaknesses, including an overall lack of vision for growth; the absence of clear branding; several empty or “ghost” projects; a poorly connected transportation system that results in frequent traffic gridlock; limited airport capacity; minimal commitment to environmental quality; and a lack of focus on the human experience, as evidenced by the absence of an iconic gathering place.

To address Sanya’s weaknesses and improve the economic prospects and quality of life for the entire area, the panel suggested six organizing principles:

  • Protect. Develop a strategy to safeguard the natural resources, air quality, and water quality; conserve more land with urban growth boundaries; protect the city’s heritage and celebrate its culture; and encourage development that distinguishes it as a destination.
  • Enhance. Place as much emphasis on enhancing the urban core and natural areas as the hotel areas to provide a richer, more complete experience that benefits both visitors and residents. This would include revitalizing existing neighborhoods and building on their historical significance, undertaking a massive tree-planting program, and establishing a network of parks.
  • Connect. Improve connections within the transportation system, including both airway and ground transit; create dedicated biking and pedestrian paths; and foster a greater sense of community among residents by developing both informal and structured gathering places.
  • Care. Focus on improving the quality of education and health care for residents, and develop a culture of healthy living.
  • Promote. Position Sanya as a unique paradise, offering a variety of recreational and entertainment experiences; increase marketing to residents in other major cities close by; target messaging to different market niches; and build awareness with branded events such as sports competitions and festivals.
  • Cooperate. Foster partnerships among all stakeholder groups to create a shared vision and instill leadership; create a tourism bureau to provide information to visitors; and collect feedback to improve offerings for both returning and new visitors.

The panel’s work was framed in part on recommendations involving revitalization and future development that the Institute provided to Sanya in 2000. “ULI, as an organization, is passionate about encouraging best practices in sustainable development,” said former ULI Chairman Harry Frampton, chairman of the recent panel and founding partner of East West Partners in Beaver Creek, Colorado. “The fact that the organization was asked to come back and advise on Sanya’s future is a testament to how valuable the Advisory Services program is to both the local government and those in the private sector.”

“The return of the Urban Land Institute to Sanya after 13 years is an excellent opportunity to evaluate the panel’s work from 2000 and adjust those recommendations to reflect the considerable changes that have taken place in the Chinese economy since that time,” said John Fitzgerald, chief executive of ULI Asia Pacific.

ULI panels, known globally for their objectivity, have produced more than 600 studies on a broad spectrum of issues ranging from mixed-income housing to military base reuse. “The strength of the Advisory Services panel process lies in the Institute’s unique ability to draw on the knowledge and experience of its nearly 30,000 members, including land developers, public officials, academics, lenders, architects, planners, and urban designers,” notes Thomas Eitler, vice president of ULI’s Advisory Services program. “The panel process helps build consensus to support an effort that benefits the entire community. It’s often the fresh, outside view provided by the panelists that achieves these results.”