by Xinhua Writers Zhou Huimin, Yue Xitong and Yao Yuan
WENCHANG, Hainan, July 24 (Xinhua) -- Imagine treading on soft sand with the sound of waves echoing in your ears, while watching a spacecraft shoot into space, leaving an arc in the azure sky.
No sci-fi fantasy, this very experience awaits visitors to Longlou, a "space town" in the coastal city of Wenchang, south China's Hainan Province. It is emerging as a must-see for all arrivals to the resort island of Hainan as China's space program picks up steam.
The small town came under the spotlight once again on Thursday as China launched its first Mars mission "Tianwen-1" here at the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, the country's only seaside launch base.
"This is the first time for our country to independently carry out Mars exploration, and also my first time to watch a space launch up close," said Ding Jiayi, a college student and aerospace fan from Nanjing, east China's Jiangsu Province.
After arriving at Longlou on Wednesday evening, Ding and his friends waited on the beach for 13 hours to record the precious moment when the Long March-5 carrier rocket blasted off.
"I hope Tianwen-1 can bring back data about Mars, such as its geography, soil and natural resources," Ding said. "I believe the successful launch will buoy the confidence of the Chinese people amid the epidemic."
Ding is not alone. Tens of thousands of tourists have flocked to this former fishing town's several open-view sites to witness the historic moment.
"This is a priceless opportunity to learn about our country's high-tech development, and I advise other parents to take their children to have a free science lesson here," said Wang Zhongmin from Ningbo, east China's Zhejiang Province, who brought his son currently in junior high school.
As infection worries wane on the island, as in most parts of China, Wang plans to go on a road trip around Longlou and Wenchang in the next few days.
The Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site saw its maiden rocket launch in 2016 and has completed several launch missions since then, including the launches of the Long March-7 and Long March-5 rockets.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, its space theme attracted tourists from across the country, who brought an instant boom to the economy of Longlou, home to 25,000 permanent residents.
There are currently more than 30 hotels and dozens of guesthouses scattered across the town, whose rooms were fully booked before the latest rocket launch, according to the local government.
Xue Yinggang, once a farmer in Xingguang Village, sensed the business opportunity when construction began on the launch site and opened a hotel.
Located about 3 km away from the launch site, his 53-room hotel is among the most popular in the town, as guests can view launches from their rooms.
"All the rooms were booked up half a month ago," said Xue, adding that before launch missions, accommodation in the town is always in short supply.
Booming tourism is now the main economic driver of Longlou. Tourism revenue contributed more than 70 percent of the town's GDP, which increased from 143 million yuan (about 20.4 million U.S. dollars) in 2009 to more than 3.5 billion yuan in 2019, data from the local government shows.
Meanwhile, annual per capita disposable income has risen to 16,514 yuan in 2019 from 5,559 yuan 10 years ago.
Now every villager in Longlou can give colorful descriptions of all the past rocket launches, though when the launch site completed construction in 2014, few locals were impressed. "We just thought a modern building had suddenly been erected in the coconut grove," Xue recalled.
Yet the locals have since changed their tune. "We welcome more tourists and look forward to the next launch," said Xue. Enditem