After years of planning, months of hype and days of last-minute preparations, the Miss World competition opened Saturday evening on this tropical island, marking China's entry into the international beauty pageant scene.
In the opening sequence, contestants took to the stage in traditional Chinese-style, high-collared red dresses. They later appeared in glittering evening gowns in every hue as they were introduced one-by-one.
"There's an air of excitement and a bit of tension among the girls," Paul Ridley, spokesman for the London-based Miss World, said ahead of the glitzy two-hour event.
Judges included film star Jackie Chan, "Sex and the City" author Candace Bushnell and Miss World President Julia Morley were also on the panel.
Four of the women were already guaranteed a spot in the top 20 positions by winning side competitions: Miss Canada, Nazanin Afshin-Jam (Sport); Miss Georgia, Irina Onashvili (Talent); Miss Bolivia, Helen Aponte Saucedo (Personality); and Miss Ireland, Rosanna Davison (Beach Beauty). A fifth spot went to Miss Australia, Olivia Marie Stratton, who was chosen by an Internet vote and the result was announced Saturday.
The contest is the latest of China's efforts to open its doors to the world and become more of a global player.
"As reform and opening up go deeper, some beneficial cultural activities have been introduced to China," said Zhou Xiong, spokesman for China's Miss World Organizing Committee. "The Miss World competition is one of the examples."
Hours before the event began, hundreds who couldn't afford tickets lined the streets on a balmy evening hoping to catch a glimpse of the contestants.
"I'm so excited. I really hope to see them," said Dai Xuefang, who was selling rock candy confections from his bicycle. "I've already waited two hours."
"They're so beautiful," said Wu Chang, one of four 18-year-old friends who attend college nearby and who planned their outing to Sanya a month ago. "It's a luxury if we see them." "We want Miss China to win!" piped in her friend Yang Liu. Tickets have sold briskly, though the prices - between US$80 to US$2,000 - are hugely expensive in a country where the monthly urban salary averages US$100.
A US$12 million tiara-shaped convention hall was built especially for the event, which organizers said would be watched by 2 billion people around the world. China hopes fame from the event will draw tourists to Sanya, a palm-dotted southern Chinese resort city on the island province of Hainan.
There were no signs of disruptions, unlike last year when the pageant was hastily moved to London from Nigeria following deadly rioting between Muslims and Christians.
The fighting erupted after a Nigerian newspaper suggested the Muslim prophet Muhammad would have approved of the Miss World pageant - and might have wanted to marry a contestant.