Sanya used to be a backwater beach resort, a remote, rundown Chinese outpost in the tropics where foreign visitors were so rare, they drew openmouthed stares. Then Miss World arrived. And nothing was the same again.
When organizers of the pageant picked Sanya as the site of the event in
2003, the government loosened its purse strings and paid for roads and other facilities. Private money built a US$12 million (euro9 million), tiara-shaped convention center to hold the final. In exchange, Sanya provided a tranquil setting for a pageant that was forced to flee Nigeria the previous year after rioting there killed 200 Muslims and Christians.
Both sides found the partnership so rewarding that Miss World is in Sanya for a second straight year, promising to draw a worldwide television audience for its sugar white beaches and azure surf when 107 women compete in the final on Saturday night.
Organizers claim that last year's event was watched by 2.3 billion people - the kind of advertising that a little beach resort like Sanya could never buy.
Even before this year's final, pageant president Julia Morley announced on Friday that Sanya has been picked as the site of Miss World again next year.
Beyond new highways and hotels, the changes brought to Sanya by Miss World can be measured in a new enthusiasm among young people to learn foreign languages.
Li Baiqing, Sanya's deputy director of tourism, divides economic development into two stages - pre-Miss World and post-Miss World. "Two years ago, we couldn't get money to pave the roads. Then, last year, not only were the roads finally built but the whole city was refurbished," he said.
"It was like putting makeup on a pretty young girl." The pageant and the free publicity it brings have fueled government efforts to promote Sanya, located at the southern tip of Hainan Island in the South China Sea, as a tourist destination. Boosters call the island "China's Hawaii," though most people still eke out a living farming or fishing. Wages are among the lowest in the nation at 9,600 yuan (US$1,160, euro910) a year in town and a third that in the countryside.
Tourist arrivals in Sanya, half of whose 200,000 people are employed by the industry, are up 23 per cent from last year at 3.7 million, and new construction is everywhere.
City officials say the US$31 million (euro23 million) that they spent on new roads has paid off. Li said the Miss World auditorium has since been used for trade shows and a martial arts exhibition. "With this beautiful hall and the roads leading to it, we have increased our attractions for visitors," he said.