China's effort to build its southernmost province into a world-class tourist destination encountered a setback last year when fewer foreigners visited.


The number of foreign visitors to Hainan, China's most popular island resort, dropped by 7.3 percent year-on-year to 756,400 in 2013.


Lu Zhiyuan, director of the provincial tourism development commission, blamed fiercer regional competition and airspace restrictions for the decline.


"We need to keep our prices competitive and open more airspace for airlines," Lu said.


Tourists from Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States, a key segment of the market, were looking elsewhere.


"Many of our potential foreign visitors choose to go to other Asian destinations, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, where prices are much lower," Lu said.


"We should monitor our prices to attract global tourists," Lu said, adding that local tourism authorities are outlining a strategy to attract more foreign visitors.


However, prices are just one factor. The lack of international flights to Hainan is another.


Only 8 percent of flights to and from Hainan in 2010 were international, according to a World Travel and Tourism Council report in 2011.


Lu agreed that airspace restrictions over Hainan should be further eased for airlines.


Three new air routes to Sanya were opened in January, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said.


"It is not enough," Lu said.


Amid growing competition from neighboring countries, the effects of the offshore duty-free policy launched in 2011 and visa-free policy for 26 countries through tour groups in Hainan since 2010 seem to have lost their ability to lure more foreign visitors.


Zhang Huifa, vice-chairman of the China Tourism and Hotel Association, said declining tourist numbers show Hainan must make greater efforts to attract visitors, and he suggested lifting visa requirements.


"The 144-hour convenience visa for tour groups to Guangdong should also apply to Hainan, and the requirement for tour groups can be lifted to allow individual tourists," Zhang said.


Lu said Hainan is improving its tourism environment and building up its reputation in the global market as it tries to become a top global destination by 2020.


In April, Hainan will host the 2014 World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit, when hundreds of the world's top tourism experts and agencies will attend a conference in Sanya.


"It is a good opportunity to learn from other countries and introduce Hainan to the world," Lu said.


Hainan is not the only place facing a fall in tourism.


According to the China National Tourism Administration, foreign visitors decreased 2.5 percent last year to 129 million.


China lost nearly 20 percent of visitors from Kazakhstan and Japan and 10 percent from Russia in 2013.


SOURCE: China Daily


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