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Dire Strait

Extreme traffic over Chinese New Year that left thousands of holiday tourists stuck in Hainan has once again sparked debate on the viability of constructing a nearly 20-kilometer bridge to connect the island province to the mainland

By Zhao Yue , Sun Xiaobo Updated May.1

Passenger vessels depart Haikou Xinhai Ro-Ro Passenger Terminal, China’s largest roll-on, roll-off passenger and vehicle terminal, Xinhai Port, Haikou, capital city of Hainan Province, February 16, 2024

Cars line up to board ferries, Xinhai Port, Haikou, February 21, 2024 (Photos by VCG)

Train cars loaded with passengers board ferries that will take them across the Qiongzhou Strait to Zhanjiang, the mainland side of the Guangdong-Hainan Railway, Nangang Port, Hainan Province, January 31, 2019 (Photo by VCG)

When Li began her road trip with six of her relatives to the resort city of Sanya on the southern island province of Hainan, she never expected that like tens of thousands of other Chinese New Year vacationers, she would be desperately scrambling for tickets home.  

“Since it was our first trip to Sanya, I didn’t have the good sense to book tickets for a return ferry,” Li told Chongqing-based news outlet cqcb.com on February 17.  

The family departed from East China’s Jiangxi Province on February 12 and planned to stay in Sanya for five days. When ferry tickets back to the mainland sold out, she turned to the airlines. 

“Plane tickets were about 20,000 yuan (US$2,780) each, which was too expensive for us. The costs of hotels and food on the island were surging as well,” Li said. While it was not reported how long the family was stuck in Hainan, Li said the delays forced her to take three extra days off from work.  

Travel to Hainan soared by 48.8 percent year-on-year over the eight-day Chinese New Year holiday starting February 10, reaching over 9.5 million trips, newspaper Hainan Daily reported on February 18.  

However, more than 80,000 travelers were left stranded on the island due to limited ferry, air and rail capacity, Henan-based hntv.tv reported.  

This was not the first time transportation issues had hindered Hainan’s tourists. During the Chinese New Year holiday in 2018, persistent fog in the Qiongzhou Strait, which separates Hainan in the South China Sea from Guangdong Province on the mainland, resulted in extended flight and ferry delays.  

With its mild temperatures, rich natural resources and scenic coasts, Hainan has long been a popular tourist destination. It has become even more attractive to tourists since 2011 for its duty-free shopping and then opening a Free Trade Port in 2018. There are now more than a dozen duty-free shopping outlets on the island.  

This year’s severe traffic congestion has once again sparked discussions of a long-proposed infrastructure project to connect Hainan and Guangdong.  

At 19.4 kilometers, the narrowest gap between the two land masses in the Qiongzhou Strait is shorter than the 55-kilometer span of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, which opened in 2018, the Hangzhou Bay Bridge (36 km) and Guangdong’s Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge (24 km, including 6.8 km of undersea tunnel) slated to open in June.  

While such a project would alleviate the island’s transportation woes, critics argue that the strait’s complex ocean floor topography makes bridge and tunnel construction too dangerous and costly.  

Troubled Waters 
Marked by frequent large gales, huge waves and volcanic and plate tectonic activity, the Qiongzhou Strait poses insurmountable challenges to construction given current technology, experts said.  

According to Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, issues such as high water pressure, corrosion and the unresolved complexities of ventilation systems in long-distance sea tunnels have impeded the development of cross-strait infrastructure.  

Building a bridge over the Qiongzhou Strait would pose more challenges than construction of the Hong KongZhuhai-Macao Bridge, which took multiple technological breakthroughs to complete, the bridge’s chief engineer Su Quanke said at a 2018 press conference. 

Factoring in the many trenches, thick layers of marine sediment and the harsh environment, the Qiongzhou Strait is not suited for cross-sea links, Su said. However, he stressed that with continued technological progress in engineering, such structures could be possible in the future. 

But even with the right technology, cost is another big concern.  

“The investment is likely to be substantial given the submarine crust ruptures, ridges and multi-layered soft sediment,” Li Shijie, president of the Institute of Human Resource Development of Hainan Free Trade Port, told NewsChina, adding that an undersea tunnel would be equally unaffordable for the province.  

First included in the central government’s agenda in 1974, the Qiongzhou Strait Crossing Project is currently projected to cost over 200 billion yuan (US$27.78b). Hainan’s GDP reached 755 billion yuan (US$105b) in 2023, with a reported general public budget projects revenue of nearly 90 billion yuan (US$12.5b). The cost is not only prohibitive for Hainan, but also for Guangdong, one of China’s most developed provinces in terms of GDP ranking.  

“It is not worth building a cross-strait link simply to ease traffic during Spring Festival. After all, it is just a periodic problem which happened to peak at this time,” said Ge Yaojun, a bridge engineering scholar at Tongji University in Shanghai.  

Other national projects like bridges, viaducts and tunnels are a higher priority, Ge said.  

“As a busy waterway, long-term construction on the Qiongzhou Strait will definitely affect sea traffic, causing immeasurable pressure on the regional economy and strategic development,” Li said.  

Increasing traffic to and from Hainan creates challenges for law enforcement and environmental protection efforts. Included in its plans for Hainan Free Trade Port released in June 2020, the central government announced independent customs operations throughout the island would start by 2025.  

“As an island, Hainan will be under enormous pressure to fight smuggling if any cross-strait bridge or tunnel is opened without curbing traffic flows,” Li said, adding that installing coastal checkpoints would greatly reduce these risks.  

According to Wu with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, increased capacity for travelers and vehicles would further stress the local environment and infrastructure.  

Hotels in Sanya hit an unprecedented 90-percent occupancy rate during this year’s Spring Festival. Coupled with the city’s 10.3 million permanent residents, according to data from 2022, surges in tourist traffic from a proposed crossing could potentially overload local infrastructure capacity. 

Centennial Visions 
A scheme to connect the mainland and Hainan was first proposed by Zhang Zhidong (1837-1909), a provincial official and one of the foremost proponents of the Westernization Movement during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). As the Republic of China’s (1911-1949) first provisional president, Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) took up the mantle in 1919 with his General Plan of National Construction.  

Their aspirations were realized in 2003 with the Guangdong-Hainan Railway between Sanya and Zhanjiang, a city southwest of the Guangdong provincial capital of Guangzhou, which uses ferries to carry trains across the strait.  

Guangdong Province invested more than 80 million yuan (US$11.11m) between 1994 and 2002 in construction feasibility reports for the Qiongzhou Strait Crossing Project, The Paper reported on August 23, 2018.  

In 2008, a plan came closest to fruition when the former Ministry of Railways (now integrated into the Ministry of Transport) and the provincial governments of Guangdong and Hainan announced that a cross-strait bridge was slated for construction from 2012 to 2020, the Xinhua News Agency reported on December 22, 2008.  

The proposed double-deck bridge for road and rail would facilitate vehicle speeds of up to 100 kilometers per hour and trains speeds of 160 km/h. Excluding price and value fluctuations, fixed investment was estimated to be 20 billion yuan (US$2.78b).  

Upon completion, travel time would be reduced from a five-hour ferry ride to a 20-minute drive. The considerable increase in efficiency would not only benefit Hainan, but also the less-developed Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region as well as western Guangdong. The bridge would also support development in the Pearl River Delta, Guangxi Beibu Gulf Economic Zone and the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, the plan read.  

However, despite the central government designating Hainan as an “international tourism island” in 2009 and the initiation of Free Trade Port construction in 2018, no significant progress has been made. However, the plan has not been officially abandoned either.  

According to a national comprehensive transportation plan released by the central government in February 2021, the proposed link between Sanya and Zhanjiang is included in the Western Land-Sea Corridor, one of seven major transport corridors planned nationwide. 
In response, the Guangdong government issued its own infrastructure plan for six proposed corridors, including the Qiongzhou Strait Crossing Project.  

In October 2022, the port authority of Hainan’s provincial capital of Haikou solicited opinions for its Comprehensive Transport System Outline 2020- 2035, which included the proposed cross-strait link.  

During the Chinese New Year holiday, numerous callers to the Hainan government complaint hotline 12345 expressed their concerns over the limited cross-sea transportation capacity. On February 9, local authorities responded publicly that the project feasibility is undergoing further verification.  

New Links 
A possible solution to enhance transportation is a high-speed railway from Zhanjiang to Hainan that uses train ferries. The proposed line would pass through ports along the strait to link with Hainan’s high-speed railway network, which went into operation in 2015, the Zhanjiang Development and Reform Bureau (ZDRB) revealed in July 2023 in response to a proposal delivered by four local Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference members earlier that year.  

The Hainan provincial government work report released at the end of January 2024 includes plans to break ground on the railway within the year. The project comes with an estimated price tag of more than 54 billion yuan (US$7.5b) and will take four years to complete, the ZDRB revealed.  

The high-speed rail between Zhanjiang and Guangzhou is slated for completion in 2024 or 2025, reducing travel time between the two cities from three hours to 90 minutes. This development implies that once the high-speed railway including ferry link from Zhanjiang to Hainan is operational, Hainan will join the national high-speed railway network.  

Increased reliability and punctuality of high-speed trains would enhance the comfort and efficiency of travel for both tourists and business travelers crossing the strait, Li Shijie of Hainan Free Trade Port told NewsChina.  

“But one aspect that the high-speed railway cannot address is freight transport. There is a strong consensus that without a cross-strait bridge or an undersea tunnel, logistics in Hainan cannot be fully streamlined,” Li added.