• Jan Kot

How ready is Shenzhen for coastal tourism?

Anyone is likely to agree that this year’s Lunar New Year holiday has been a special one. With the outbreak of the new coronavirus, the usual peak traveling season was grounded to a halt as cities across China issued travel restrictions and major airlines pulled the plug on services to Hong Kong and mainland. At the time of writing, the full extent of the hit to the broader business was not yet clear, although there have been signs that financial fallout, like the virus itself, might not be easily contained.

As hotels and tour operators across Asia fearfully watched the world’s largest source of tourism dollars tighten its borders, we could only lie in our bedroom picturing sandy beaches and golden sunshine. Outside our window was Shenzhen's Binhai Avenue and our thoughts inevitably turned to the city's ambition of developing its coastal tourism, especially it hosted the China Marine Economy Expo few months ago.

As early as 2018, Shenzhen’s municipal government has had its sights set on building a global center of ocean-based industries by 2035. The city has a solid industry within electronic information and more than 7,000 enterprises engaging in maritime-related businesses.

Shenzhen's maritime ambition

The marine industry is one of Shenzhen’s seven strategic emerging industries, with plans for a new marine precinct, which will be home to 50,000 people. The precinct is to cover 7.44 square kilometers of reclaimed land at the east side of the Pearl River estuary, adjacent to the Shenzhen World Exhibition and Convention Center.

It’s easy to forget that in its emergence from a fishing village to China’s Silicon Valley, Shenzhen isn’t all about non-descript factory buildings or funky skyscrapers. It’s, in fact, a naturally beautiful city, with 40.9% of its space remaining green amid its unprecedented urbanization. It also has a 260 kilometer long shoreline with pristine beaches.

Shenzhen’s rich maritime resources, underpinned by an ocean territory of 1,145 square kilometers, have so far hardly been explored. This may have much to do with the fact that this young sea-side city of more than 20 million population is dominated by migrants from China’s inland region. Many of these urban workers have had very little experience living by water or possess any deep emotion towards the sea. They arrived in Shenzhen with the goal to make a good living and few had the leisure of kicking back by the beach. As such, Shenzhen’s only claim to proper sea-side development is Dameisha, a waterfront park in east Shenzhen with a 1.8-kilometer long open beach with subtropical scenery of the South China Sea. Perhaps it’s fair to say that Shenzhenren’s (people of Shenzhen) indifference to a beach-side lifestyle has fundamentally challenged the development of the city’s coastal tourism.

As a traditionally agrarian society, the Chinese have always depended on their soil and found the ocean an unattainable mystery. Even well into the Ming (the 15th century) and Qing (the 17th century) dynasties, the imperial Chinese court maintained a maritime prohibition policy as part of its isolationism strategies. The Haijin sea ban policies, for example, prohibited private maritime trading and coastal settlement, the former of which was punishable by death.

China boasts a total of 32,000 kilometers in coastline, with 18,000 kilometers along the continent and 14,000 kilometers along the islands, spanning an ocean territory of three million square kilometers. But, it wasn’t until very recently that China seriously placed maritime resources at the center of its national strategy.

A look at the layout of some of China’s most important and historical coastal cities reveals the country’s innate suspicion of water. Whether it’s Shanghai, Guangzhou or Tianjin, their urban center is always placed tens of kilometers away from the shoreline. Only younger cities such as Dalian, Qingdao, Xiamen or Shenzhen are truly seaside destinations.

To average Chinese citizens, the so-called “blue economy” conjures up images of fishery, sea ports and coastal tourism. It’s easy to assume that as the country’s fastest developing, most open and economically sound city, Shenzhen, has an equally sophisticated maritime economy; but, the reality is Shenzhen’s brand name as a coastal city does not even nearly match its domestic counterparts.

Untapped ocean resources

The city’s most treasured coastal tourism destination is Dapeng Peninsula. For years, its development was led by the government’s preservation-oriented policy. This has proven to be a double-edged sword, as a natural response to the government directive was not to do anything out of the ordinary. As a result, such a risk averse attitude has largely hindered Dapeng’s development. Compared to Dameisha to its west or Huizhou’s Daya Bay to its east, Dapeng Peninsula’s coastal tourism remains tepid with no real attraction, and Shenzhen as a whole, offers very little brand value as an international coastal city.

But, with some gusto and vision, Shenzhen’s distinguished eastern and western coastlines can very well be cultivated for maritime tourism.

The 160-kilometer shoreline in the city’s east sketches out a scenic Dapeng Bay, which with its twists and turns encompass more than 40 sandy beaches and the Dapeng Peninsula against a lush backdrop of the rolling Qiniang Mountain. Suggestions have been made to keep the Meisha Bay, a relatively developed destination located about 10 kilometers from the city center, as a public area for the masses. The same has also been suggested of Jinsha Bay, located about 20 kilometers from the city center, with calls to turn it into a resort destination catered to middle class consumers. Nan’ao Bay, the farthest located at about 40 kilometers from the city center, has the city’s longest beach and the heritage site, Dapeng Fortress, making it an ideal building site for luxury villas.

The western coastline, on the other hand, begins from the Shenzhen River estuary, threads past Shenzhen Bay and Shekou Peninsula before traveling north along the east bank of the Pearl River estuary to Dongguan and Guangzhou’s Nansha. In the past four decades, this shoreline has followed the course of Shenzhen’s urbanization, tracing from the Futian CBD to the high tech hub of Nanshan, from Houhai’s super headquarters base to the free trade zones of Shekeou and Qianhai, from the tourist destination of Sea World to the Shenzhen Prince Bay Cruise Terminal, from Tencent’s island headquarters to the airport-based aerotropolis, from the world’s largest convention center to the new marine city. This 100-kilometer shoreline is without a doubt one of China’s most valuable seaside urban centers.

Integrate urban space with water

Shenzhen has taken inspiration from some of the world’s most renowned coastal cities such as the US’s Hawaii, France’s Nice, Italy’s Venice, Australia’s Gold Coast and Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro to integrate its urban space with the open water. Shenzhen’s New Marine City, for example, is a mega project of 5.5 square kilometers of reclaimed land designed by the US urban design and innovation office Tekuman Frenchman.

Much of the architecture and infrastructure will float or be built directly above the water, while some occupies the existing coastline. All of it will, however, be set amidst replanted mangrove trees aiming to protect the shoreline from waves, retain soil, support biodiversity for marine fauna and flora and help clean the water.

The New Marine City will also feature an industrial park to house research and development for deep-sea exploration and resource extraction using autonomous undersea vehicles. The focal point of Frenchman’s design, which was selected from 140 global applicants, is a pier extending from the convention center directly to the waterfront, hosting entertainment and exhibition venues like restaurants, a deep-sea aquarium, specialty retail shops, clubs, water sports, and cinemas along with a ferry terminal.

Shenzhen has mapped out a total of 12 projects to achieve its goal of becoming a global center of ocean-based industries by 2035. Besides the New Marine City, the city also plans to set up an ocean university, a national deep-sea scientific expedition center, an international ocean development bank, a research institute on marine science and technology, a global marine think tank, an international tuna trade center, an ocean engineering enterprise group, a maritime court, a maritime museum, a maritime science and technology museum and a new marine industry development fund.

All these may take years if not decades to complete, but with Beijing’s blessing and Shenzhen’s own can-do attitude, the winds are blowing strong and we won’t be surprised to see the city set sail to achieving its maritime ambition.

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