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June 3, 2011

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Fantasy Islands

MANY people fantasize about having an island where they can get away from it all, but the island dream might be a reality in China, where 176 deserted islands are for rent. Tan Weiyun checks the listings.

Glamorous yachts, golden sandy beaches and seaside villas - or maybe just a little shack on an island patch of peaceful paradise: That's the stuff of dreams and China has more than 10,000 islands from the tropics to the chilly north.

Many are uninhabitable windswept outcroppings of rock, but others are beautiful and can be developed for tourism, industry and fisheries, public services and transport.

In April the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) released the first national standards for acquiring - 50-year lease, not sale - 176 uninhabited and unimproved islands designated for various types of development.

It's not clear whether anyone can obtain his or her personal, self-indulgent island getaway, a non-money maker, just an oasis. Someone may try, but officials are likely to give preference to money-generating developments. Time will tell.

Land for development is expensive on the mainland, so some developers are looking offshore.

Lu Caixia, office director of Islands Management of the SOA, told a press conference in April that regulations on developing uninhabited islands include environmental protections. Developers must submit plans, which must be approved by marine and environment experts. It then goes for approval from the provincial government. Foreign ventures should be approved by the State Council.

Residential real estate development is not allowed at this time, according to Lu.

"They won't be turned into inhabited islands because of the planned development," the director says.

Rental rates are fixed; islands are nontransferable to rule out speculation. Renters must supply all infrastructure - water, electricity, docks, roads, transport, boats and so on.

In the past, anyone could rent an island with a 40-year lease, but people had to negotiate directly for the best deal with provincial officials, meaning the rates were very uneven and some said unfair. Now it's all supposed to be systematized and locals are not supposed to overcharge.

Islands are available in all eight coastal provinces, from Liaoning in the north to Hainan Island in the south. The province with the most islands on offer in this batch is Guangdong Province. Ten of its islands are up for development.

Four types

The government has designated all 176 islands for certain kinds of development, tourism, public services, industry (shipbuilding, fisheries and others), ocean traffic and transport.

Islands for tourism are to be developed for sightseeing, ocean recreation, sea fishing, yachting and resorts.

Islands for public service will be developed for power plants and landfills.

Industrial use covers ship building and repair, as well as aquatic industries.

Islands designated for traffic and transport will be the sites of piers, footings and other structures for bridges and cross-sea highways.

The islands drawing the most attention are those to be developed for sightseeing and tourism.

"I've received dozens of phone calls during the past month, mostly from wealthy entrepreneurs interested in development," says Ni Dingkang, a maritime affairs official in Zhoushan, an island city in Zhejiang Province.

"But when I explain the rent and requirements, they all fall silent," says Ni, who is deputy office director of Maritime Affairs Management.

The Zhoushan Archipelago on the East China Sea includes almost 1,400 islands, accounting for around 20 percent of China's islands; of those 1,160 are uninhabited, many of them just outcroppings. The uninhabited islands together cover only 26 square kilometers; the average area is only the size of three football pitches.

Some islands are uninviting and none has fresh water.

They are buffeted by storms and high seas, sometimes cyclones and are often wrapped in thick fog. But there's no pollution in the rocky soil.

It costs a fortune to develop an island, but the average rent isn't that high, says Ni. He says that nationwide islands developed for tourism cost from 250 to 3,000 yuan (US$38 to US462) per hectare per year, depending on their distance from shore. More distant islands are less expensive.

"But the money poured in for further development can be endless," says Ni. He estimates that basic infrastructure alone costs around 10 million yuan. That doesn't include project work, construction, facilities and maintenance. "Our conservative estimate for the first construction phase on a tourism island is at least 50 million yuan," he says.

Along the promenade of Zhoushan, a city famous for its seafood and sightseeing, one sees many green islands not too far offshore.

For decades fishermen have been fish farming on some of the inshore islands, but the development blueprint means that some will no longer be able to rent land to catch fish, shrimp, crabs and other seafood.

One of those slated for tourism and sightseeing is long and narrow Danzhi Island where eight fisher families have rented little plots for fishponds.

The island is only 200 meters offshore; it is 1,600 meters long and 100 meters wide. When the tide comes in the middle part is flooded, making it perfect for fish ponds. The Zhoushan Cross-sea Bridge passes overhead.

Fisherman Wang Zhongliang from Ma'an Village rented 1.3 hectares from the local government 10 years ago and catches fish, shrimp and crabs. He pays 500 yuan per mu (around 675 square meters) a year. Each year he earns 200,000 yuan from his catch.

Ma'an Village is the nearest dock and for more than a decade seven other families in the village have rented land where they have dug fishponds.

"It's a treasure land," says 56-year-old Wang. "You can raise and catch fish, shrimp, crabs, clams and other seafood."

Every morning he sets off in his battered power boat at 6am because he's got lots of work. It's a 20-minute ride. He has built a lock by his fishpond to let seawater in when the tide comes in, and in come sea creatures of all kinds.

Another fisherman is 41-year-old Zhu Yueding, Wang's neighbor, who rents 3.8 hectares for marine farming.

Zhu learned from TV news that the island of their livelihood is now open for development.

"The government promises us compensation, but we don't know how much. If they develop the island, I will be jobless."

Here are a few islands on offer

? Qinshan Island

Ganyu County, Lianyungang City, Jiangsu Province

The island, around 15 kilometers from Lianyungang City, is named after Emperor Qin Shihuang (259 BC-210 BC) who once climbed a mountain there and made a sacrifice to sea deities. The island is 1,000 meters long and 200 meters wide. Former army barracks are rented by fishermen. The island also has ancient pavilions and a fortress.

It will become a tourist site.

? Zhu Island (Bamboo Island)

Lianyun District, Lianyungang City, Jiangsu Province

The island, 500 meters from the Yuzhen Hill of Lianyun New Town, is known for evergreen saozhou zhu (broom bamboo). The coastline extends 1,336 meters and the three sides of the island, with an area of just 0.13 square kilometer, are cliffs.

It will become a cultural and tourist site.

? Tuanjishan Island

Dinghai District, Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province

The 8.3-square-kilometer island is 850 meters long and 325 meters wide. The land is rocky and farmers rent land to grow maize and sweet potatoes.

It will be used for public service, a landfill.

? Xiaolaitou Island

Putuo District, Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province

The island is no more than 500 square meters with no vegetation.

It will be developed for transport and traffic.

? Dawayaomen Island

Daishan County, Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province

The island covers 11,879 square meters; its coastline is 571 meters. Black pine trees and silver-grass are growing on it.

It will be developed for transport and traffic.

? Waimalangshan Island

Shengsi County, Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province

The island is 900 meters long and 250 meters wide, coverings 175,484 square meters. White thatch and jellyfish flowers grow widely.

It will be developed for tourism.

? Limalangshan Island

Shengsi County, Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province

About 350 meters long and 100 meters wide, it covers 24,897 square meters; the coastline is 862 meters. There's a deep cave in the north and flowers are common.

It will be developed for tourism.

? Zhu Island (Pig Island)

Lushun City, Liaoning Province

Covering around 1 square kilometer, the island is shaped like a sleeping pig. It's uninhabited but the island does have a year-round fresh water well. Pagoda and willow trees flourish. The island is famous for a special grass used to make brooms. The surrounding waters are rich in sea life.

It will be developed for tourism.

? Xiaoqingzhou Island

Sanya City, Hainan Province

The island in the southeastern corner of the Sanya Bay covers less than a square kilometer. Near the shore are rich coral reefs; bushes and wild grass cover the island and there's a grove of coconut trees.

It will be developed for tourism.


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