With a coastline blocked by high-rise buildings, formerly lush mountains scarred by construction projects and a blue sea tainted by sewage, Boao, a town on the southernmost island province of Hainan, is feeling the harsh realities of a building boom.
In 2011, Boao was chosen as the permanent venue for the annual Boao Forum for Asia, a high-level forum for promoting regional economic integration.
But such high visibility has come at a cost, as the once tranquil fishing town on the east coast of Hainan has been shaken by bulldozers making way for mushrooming housing projects.
"I came here to relax and enjoy beautiful sceneries, only to find dense concrete buildings that don't suit a town nicknamed 'Paradise Town,'" said tourist Cheng Fei, who lives in the provincial capital of Haikou.
"It was not quite like this when I first came here seven years ago. The new buildings are so boring, so why should I bother to come all the way here?" Cheng said.
"Boao used to be a quiet fishing village with few people and a lot of tile-roofed houses in the 1990s," local resident Xu Dafu said, adding that it is quite different now, as an abundance of real estate development projects are diminishing the tranquility that once prevailed in Boao.
"The coastal areas are full of property development projects and I think Boao has been ruined by overdevelopment. What's worse is that overdevelopment and lax regulation on the part of the government have taken a toll on the local environment," Xu said.
Foul-smelling sewage pipelines from coastal buildings, restaurants and construction sites can be both seen and smelled from the beach. Some pipelines are hidden beneath the sand, but greenish water can be seen flowing from the pipes, eventually reaching the blue sea.
Tourists have to cover their noses while walking past the pipelines. "It is such a pity that the beauty of Boao is being spoiled by the sewage," a tourist surnamed Xiao from Beijing said.
BUILDING FOR PROFITS
Profit-driven developers and home buyers with deep pockets — most of whom are not native to Boao — are driving the property market boom in the town.
According to statistics from the Boao government, housing prices have increased from 5,000 yuan (795 U.S. dollars) per square meter in 2005 to 20,000 yuan per square meter in 2012.
The price jump has been most remarkable since 2010, as Hainan began working to build itself into an international tourism destination, said Lu Zhiming, head of the Boao town government.
In the 31-square-km town, over 20 residential buildings on the coast alone were on sale in May.
Meanwhile, land prices in Boao have jumped as well. "The land price has risen from 1,500 yuan per square meter in 2005 to nearly 10,000 yuan at present, but property developers still reap huge profits as more and more tourists flock to such a 'Paradise Town' for travel and retirement," said local resident Xu Dafu, who renovated his house that was originally built in the Nanyang style, or Southeast Asian style, into a two-story concrete building.
Boao was once dominated by Nanyang-style Qilou buildings, which are balcony-type tenant buildings for both residential and commercial use.
But with the booming housing market, many residents like Xu have razed their traditional houses and built new concrete ones that are often two or three stories high.
"So, except for some backward rural areas, the Nanyang-style buildings are hard to find now," Lu said. "The newly-developed real estate properties are mainly snatched up by people coming from outside of Boao."
Before the influx of outside buyers, there was no such thing as unaffordable property in Boao, Xu said.
DEVELOPERS HEAD FOR HIGHER GROUND
In addition to the coastline, real estate developers have also turned their attentions to Boao's mountains, where trees were felled to make room for buildings.
On Longtan Mountain, Boao's highest point, a villa project developed by CITIC Real Estate Hainan Investment Co., Ltd. left patches of bald spots on the once lush, green mountain.
CITIC Real Estate Hainan plans to build 140 villas covering an area of 200 mu (13.3 hectares) on Longtan Mountain in the first phase of the entire construction project. The whole project will cover 628 mu upon completion.
CITIC Real Estate Hainan's acts of deforestation have not only damaged the local scenery and environment, but also increased landslide risks, said staff with the nearby Boao State Guesthouse.
However, the project has been suspended as CITIC Real Estate Hainan began construction without approval, said Wang Peining, deputy director of the Planning and Construction Bureau of the city of Qionghai, which administers Boao.
The local government initially approved CITIC Real Estate Hainan's plans to build several model villas, but the company surpassed the government-approved number of model villas, resulting in the suspension of the project.
"There are some problems concerning the pace and management of our construction project, and we should be held responsible for that," said Wang Li, general manager of CITIC Real Estate Hainan.
As for problems caused by property development, Wang said, "The development will surely make an impact on the local environment, but as long as we plant trees afterwards to compensate for those cut down, I believe there won't be a problem."
"We should be aware of the dangerous trend of real estate development moving from coastal areas to mountains, which is fueled by developers as well as lax government regulations," said said Wang Yiwu, a professor with Hainan University.
Wang added that efforts should be made to contain the spread of illegal practices and strengthen the accountability of relevant authorities.
PROTECTING THE 'PARADISE TOWN'
"Boao is on a fast track right now with many new projects under way, but government regulation has failed to keep up," said Lu, the head of Boao town government.
Land and coastal resources are very precious to Hainan and the ecological environment is the lifeline of the island, so it is necessary to prioritize environmental protection in urban planning, tighten rules on approving new projects and conduct arduous assessments on environmental impacts, said Yang Guanxiong, a researcher with the Department of Land, Environment and Resources of Hainan Province.
"In the future, more efforts will be made to strengthen management and project approval so as to protect our environment and return the coastline to the sea and tourists. Only in this way can we build Boao into a world-class conference venue and recreational center," Lu added.
Compared to Davos, a place known not only as the venue for the World Economic Forum, but also as a renowned tourist destination with complete urban infrastructure and perfect natural landscapes, Boao has a long way to go.
"It is quite nearsighted for Boao to develop lucrative housing projects with a blind aim of guaranteeing short-term economic interests, as these projects are wiping out the unique features of Boao and turning it into just another rich town," Professor Wang said.
Official statistics show that among the 2 million tourists that visit Boao each year, overnight tourists are few, except during the Boao Forum for Asia.
The hotel occupancy rate on average is less than 30 percent and many hotels are in the red, according to the manager of a high-end hotel in Boao who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Preserving Boao's environment and building it into a tropical resort town with its unique features is the path that should be taken for Boao, Professor Wang said.
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