China’s tropical island of Hainan is offering subsidised housing and fast track work visas as part of an ambitious campaign to attract 1 million new residents by 2025, as it seeks to become the new poster child for the country’s opening up and economic development.

With a current population of about 9.3 million, the southern province, which was recently chosen by President Xi Jinping to become China’s largest free-trade zone, is hoping to woo its first 200,000 newcomers by 2020, according to a plan released on Sunday by the provincial government.

Of the 1 million people it wants to attract by 2025, a “large number” will be foreigners, it said.

‘China’s Hawaii’ set to become pilot free-trade port in next phase of country’s opening up

The island welcomes “qualified” technicians and other skilled people from around the world and across China – including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan – all of whom are invited to apply for permanent residency in Hainan for themselves, spouses and children, it said.

Wang Lijing, the chairman of a local engineering supervision company, said he was in favour of the plan to attract new workers to the the island, which is sometimes referred to as China’s Hawaii.

“Overall, it’s a good move,” he said. “Hainan is really in need of new talent, especially now it has been chosen to be a free-trade zone.”

Wang said he moved to Hainan in 1992 and that the local people were “quite tolerant” of newcomers. What was important now was for the province to develop a healthy economy so that the new arrivals would want to stay, he said.

Hainan last saw a major influx of people – primarily from other parts of China – in the late 1980s when Beijing named it as a “special economic zone” and thousands of new jobs were created.

But when a local property bubble burst in 1993, many of them packed up and returned home.

Hainan opens channel to home ownership for new workers

Under its new plan to attract talented workers, the Hainan government said any new arrivals would be exempted from the recent restrictions applied to property purchases.

“From the day they settle down, [the newcomers] will enjoy the same treatment as local residents in terms of buying property,” Hou Juran, head of the provincial housing authority, told a press conference.

His comment came as clarification after the local government last month imposed a ban on all non-residents buying property on the island.

For foreigners interested in making a temporary move to the island, the local authorities said that applications for work visas – valid for up to five years – would generally be completed within two days.

For Chinese citizens, the Hainan government will make it easier for desirable candidates – those with a university degree – to formally shift their permanent household registration documents to the island.

Hainan, China’s Hawaii, to use Hong Kong as gateway for fundraising, IPOs

Among the financial incentives on offer is a 2,000 yuan (US$315) monthly rent subsidy for anyone aged under 40 in possession of a master’s degree. The value drops to 1,500 yuan a month for newcomers with only bachelor’s degrees.

While authorities across China have long been keen to attract new people to their cities and regions, few have been as open as Hainan in laying out such specific targets and incentives.

Michael Wang, a hotel director in Sanya, one of Hainan’s main tourism destinations, said the island’s affordable home prices and tropical weather would be big draws for anyone thinking of relocating, but added that the province as a whole lagged behind many of China’s top cities in terms of public services, like health care and education.

He said he also feared that some residents might not be keen to see a huge influx of well-paid outsiders.

“There are already conflicts between locals and the growing number of homebuyers from other provinces,” he said. “If the income gap between locals and non-locals gets bigger, I’m afraid that there will also be bigger conflicts.”

Hainan property market proves hard to cool

A resident of Haikou, the provincial capital, who gave his name only as Long, agreed with Wang, saying the government’s plan to attract residents was nothing more than a bid to shore up the housing market.

“The government just wants to keep house prices from falling,” he said.

Apart from being a tourism destination, in recent years Hainan has mostly attracted retirees from northern China and property speculators. Its population rose by just 86,000 last year, a figure that included both new births and immigrants.

Hainan, Hong Kong must collaborate to grow together

One man who has already taken advantage of the incentives available to small businesses in Hainan – some of which predate the 1 million new residents plan – is Owen Zhu from Hong Kong, who earlier this month set up an online travel information service on the island that caters for gay and lesbian travellers.

“I’d been thinking about starting such a project for a long while, but I was worried about the cost,” the former video content producer said.

“In Hong Kong or Shenzhen, it would have been too expensive, [but] Hainan’s latest policies encouraged me to go ahead with my plan.”

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