When a visitor walks out of the ferry terminal of Zhuhai, the first thing he sees is a long stretch of shore lined with trees. Walk along the shore, of the Pearl River, and you come to a beach 1.5 kilometres long and 90 metres wide, full of tourists and tents.
The beach looks as if it has been there for many years – but no: it opened only last year (2015), as a new attraction. It helped to increase the number of visitors to the city last year to 4.71 million, up 2.3 per cent over 2014. Tourism is one of its most important industries.
“Yes, it was a good investment,” said Yang Linguo, a tour guide. “The beach helps to bring more people from Zhongshan, Jiangmen and neighbouring cities. It is another thing to do. We are fortunate to live here, one of the nicest cities in the country.”
The beach is on Lovers Avenue, which runs a total of 18 kilometres along the waterfront. The city plans to triple the length to 55 kilometres and make it one of the longest shorefront roads in the world. It is part of a plan to retain a title Zhuhai won in 2014.
That year the Chinese Academy of Social Science ranked Zhuhai as the most pleasant city in China to live in, ahead of Hong Kong and Haikou. It overtook Hong Kong, which had ranked first for the previous 12 years.
This has earned Zhuhai the name ‘Garden City’ and made it popular not only for tourists but for retirees and people in Macao, Hong Kong and other places in China to buy a second home to use at weekends or for holidays; many buyers come from Beijing, Tianjin and places in the northeast with a harsh winter.
The title ‘Garden City’ is the result of decisions taken since the foundation of Zhuhai as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at the start of the open-door and reform era in 1980, especially by Liang Guangda, mayor between 1983 and 1999, the longest period of any mayor of a SEZ.
Liang wanted Zhuhai to be a ‘green’ city, of leisure, tourism and education, and not go for maximum growth through rapid development of industry. He also wanted to maximise its role as a neighbour to Macao, to attract visitors to stay in and enjoy the facilities of Zhuhai while going to the casinos across the border.
So he was selective in approving the kind of factories allowed to come and was careful in zoning; he grouped industrial companies in certain areas and residential, tourist and commercial facilities in others.
The city leaders who came after him have followed his example and made Zhuhai one of the greenest cities in China, with parks, a forest cover of 36 per cent, a Club Med resort and international-standard golf courses.
The new beach was built by Gree Real Estate, a subsidiary of Gree Electronics, the city’s biggest company and the world’s largest producer of air conditioners. In recent years, it has expanded rapidly into the property sector, where profits are substantially higher than for electrical appliances.
The project involved moving thousands of tones of sand on rocks on the shore of the Pearl River on Lovers Lane, the street most popular with tourists.
The company said that the beach would transform the area into a bay that is “famous around the world, a shoreline of art and romance and a large recreation area for residents and tourists.”
Along the shore are three major projects nearing completion that also aim to attract more visitors. One is an Opera House involving an investment of 1.718 billion yuan on 50,000 square metres of reclaimed land.
The design is of two shells – one large shell at 90 metres high and a small one, at 60 metres high. It will have a concert hall with 1,550 seats, plus a lobby, an auditorium and a stage and a small theatre with 500 seats, for smaller events, fashion shows, art promotions and corporate meetings. It is due to start operations this summer.
Opposite the opera house, overlooking the Pearl River, are the Zhuhai Museum and the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. The museum will have a built-up area of 20,000 square metres. Visitors to the roof of both will have a commanding view of the river on one side and a spacious park on the other.
These facilities are part of the city’s plan to upgrade and improve its environment.
Another is a system of 5,000 bicycles available to the public for leasing. They are available at 193 points close to bus stops in the Gongbei, Jida and Xiangzhou districts. In a second and third phase of the operation, the city plans to distribute a total of 20,000 bicycles around the city.
Residents use a citizen card or Union Pay bank IC card; the first 90 minutes of each day is free, with a charge of one yuan per hour after that. A resident can find the nearest service point through his or her mobile phone. Inside each bicycle is an electronic chip, through which the dispatching centre can monitor when it is leased and returned.
There are cycle lanes along the shore front and throughout the city; at the weekends, enthusiasts from Hong Kong and Macao come to enjoy them.
Another measure is the introduction of clean buses. Most of Zhuhai’s public buses use Liquefied Natural Gas, which generates 90 per cent less exhaust than gasoline. In October 2010, it started the first electric bus route in the city – and Guangdong province – and is introducing more each year. The aim is to phase out buses using gasoline completely.
In 2015, the city paid a subsidy of 250,000 yuan for electric buses. It also offered 125,000 yuan to corporations and individuals who bought new energy vehicles, including pure electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles and fuel-cell vehicles.
The city is home to Zhuhai Guangtong Automobile Company Ltd., which was established in 1999. It has a production capacity of 6,000 electric vehicles a year; its buses run on the streets of the city.
VICTIM OF ITS OWN SUCCESS
Zhuhai also plans to build a system of trams, with the first five lines having a total of 103 stations. The first line has been completed but not gone into operation.
Zhuhai is a victim of its own success. Its popularity and the flood of visitors it brings are presenting a severe challenge. While the city has an excellent bus service, less than 15 per cent of the population use it. The number of private cars, used by residents and visitors, is rising sharply.
As of the end of last year, the city had 456,000 vehicles, an increase of 16.5 per cent over a year earlier. Of these, 351,000 were private cars, an increase of 20.6 per cent. Add to these the thousands of vehicles used by people from Macao and cities in Guangdong and other provinces. As a result, the city is for the first time experiencing traffic jams, at weekends and the hours of going to and leaving work during the week.
The city government has ruled out a subway, because the population of 1.6 million is too small; three million is considered the minimum to make a subway viable. Instead, it would like the tram system to carry a large number of passengers and ease the congestion.
“The modern streetcar has a much larger transport capacity but lower cost than that of a metro,” said Chen Lin, deputy director-general of the urban rail transit marketing department of China North Railway, which is responsible for the tramway project. “A streetcar provides sightseeing, which is ideal for a small- and medium-size city like Zhuhai.” It can deliver 5,000 to 15,000 one-way passengers an hour.
CLEAR SKIES, LARGE FORESTED AREA
The reputation of the Garden City is the main reason for Zhuhai’s success in attracting visitors. According to the most recent official figures, it last year attracted 4.71 million overseas visitors, up 2.3 per cent from 2014. Of these, 600,100 were foreigners, down 12.1 per cent: those from Macao, Hong Kong and Taiwan numbered 4.11 million, up 4.8 per cent. Of the total, 3.08 million stayed at least one night, up 5.3 per cent. Foreign exchange revenue from tourism was US$962 million, up 3.7 per cent.
The number of domestic tourists in 2015 was 31.2 million, up eight per cent, of whom 16.2 million stayed at least one night, up 6.6 per cent. Domestic revenue from tourism was 21.79 billion yuan, up 6.5 per cent, with the average occupancy rate of the city’s hotels 63.5 per cent, up 2.3 percentage points.
The visitors were an important element in the city’s consumer retail sales, which reached 91.32 billion yuan in 2015, up 12 per cent over 2014: income of hotels and restaurants was 10.38 billion yuan, up 16.6 per cent.
The city government said that Zhuhai had one national-level natural protection area, totaling 46,000 hectares. During 2015, it covered 1,569 hectares with trees, including wasteland and reforestation. The tree coverage area reached 35.94 per cent, with 19.5 square metres of garden and green area per citizen, an increase of 0.75 square metres.
The city is blessed with a large area and a small population. It covers an area of 1,720 square kilometres, including 146 islands, and has 690 km of shoreline, one of the longest in China. At the end of last year, it had a population of 1.63 million, an increase of 1.23 per cent over a year earlier.
During 2015, it had an average temperature of 23.9 degrees Celsius, with 1,987 hours of sunshine, 1,719.5 millimetres of rain and 45 overcast days, according to official figures. Air quality was excellent on 186 days and good on 137 days, they said. The recycling of household waste in the urban area reached 100 per cent.
GOLF AND CLUB MED
One of Zhuhai’s main draws for visitors is its recreation facilities. It has several golf clubs, including Lakewood. A private members’ club, it has two 18-hole golf-courses, designed by American J. Michael Poellot and constructed to the latest international standards. It has a 32-bay driving range, putting greens and bunkers, shop selling golf equipment and a club house with a restaurant.
The club attracts both local people and those from Hong Kong and Macao who come to play regularly; clubs in the two SARs are expensive and hard to get into.
The city also has the Pingsha yacht and leisure tourism zone and hot spring resorts.
In June 2014, Club Med opened a resort in Zhuhai, on Dong’ao island. The resort is part of the Lingding Seashore project, which has an area of 4.65 square kilometres and a coastline of 15.09 kilometres, both developed by Zhuhai Gree Real Estate. The first phase involves an investment of 1.2 billion yuan, with two five-star hotels and a total of 344 rooms, a catering centre and 250-yard area. All are operated by Club Med.
The facility offers scuba diving, water skiing, snorkeling, paddle boarding, a wellness centre and a variety of restaurants. Each room has a balcony and most have a sea view.
Zhuhai wants to become an internationally famous tourist and leisure resort, attracting foreign visitors to its beaches, yachting, water sports, seafood, sports events and performances. It is en route towards that goal but has not reached it yet. To achieve this goal, it must remain a garden city and ensure that the side-effects of economic development do not damage that hard-won title.
Text Ou Nian-Le
Photos Eric Tam