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‘China’s Cape Canaveral’ is booming, fueled by moon mission and space program

By Lilit Marcus and Marc Stewart, CNN

(CNN) — Hainan, a Chinese island that’s geographically closer to Hanoi than Beijing, is known as the Hawaii of China due to its sandy beaches and temperate weather.

But there’s another reason tourists from around China are flocking to Hainan these days: space.

The city of Wenchang is home to a rocket launch center – and a tourist industry that caters to a growing interest in space-related tourism.

China has made no secret of its desire to develop tourism here, drawing inspiration from Florida’s Cape Canaveral – the launchpad for many famous NASA space missions.

CNN visited Wenchang, on Hainan’s northeast coast, to experience the thrill firsthand ahead of the May 3 launch of the Chang’e-6 probe, which aims to explore the far side of the moon in its 53-day mission.

The interior of the Hilton Wenchang looks more like a space center than a typical tropical resort. From celestial scenes in the corridors to a rocket on the breakfast buffet, the sprawling property is inspired by the nearby Wenchang Launch Center.

At the hotel gift shop, visitors can find space-inspired kids’ toys, stuffed animals and models. Ahead of the May moon mission, the hotel offered a special aerospace-inspired afternoon tea. For around $30, guests were served a platter with planet-style bite-sized cakes, chocolate planes and astronauts, and a mousse-filled rocket, garnished with blue and pink sugar crystals representing the heavens above.

The space theme continues around Wenchang.

Rocket designs hang from light poles and there are several displays of Chinese spacecraft – perfect for a selfie or family portrait. Bottled water sold in stores comes in containers shaped like rockets.

The growth of China’s space program has fueled more interest in all things aeronautic. Hotel representatives tell CNN that room rates at the Hilton Wenchang can be seven times higher when there’s a launch. Visitors can watch the takeoff from the hotel’s beach.

State media in China reports that 1.5 million people have visited Wenchang in the past two years, while the number of hotels has gone from five to more than 50.

Unsurprisingly, the space program has instilled a sense of national pride in China.

That’s certainly the case for photographer Yan Zehua, who has a stand in Wenchang where he sells his work on postcards.

“Although it’s my 24th time, maybe, to see the rocket launch, I’m still excited about this,” he told CNN.

Parents also brought their children for the big moment. Several told CNN that they hoped getting to see a launch up close would give the kids an interest in science and technology.

“This is our first time digging lunar soil from (the far side of) the moon,” one mom said. “So we are happy to watch (how it is done). And I brought my daughter to watch this together.”

Space-inspired attractions are just one way that China is diversifying its tourism offerings on Hainan beyond the beach.

A Hello Kitty-themed resort and park is under construction with a tentative opening date in 2025.

In addition, it’s easier for tourists from around the world to visit Hainan than other regions of China. The island is visa-free for residents of more than 50 countries, including the United States, Canada, France, New Zealand, Malaysia and Japan.

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