Sanya has been inhabited for over 10,000 years; however, Chinese have inhabited the area since the Qin Dynasty. During the Han dynasty, the Li people arrived from Guangxi province. For many centuries, the island was designated as a place for exiles, one of the most famous of whom was the poet Su Dong Po (1036-1101). Systematic Han settlement began during the Song dynasty, and large-scale migration of Han from Fujian and Guangdong took place during the Qing Dynasty, forcing the Li people into the highlands. At that time, Hainan Island was used as a strategic military outpost to combat the French. During the Sino-Japanese War, the locals fought a guerilla campaign against the Japanese.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Hainan Special Administrative Area was established. Hainan Island is considered the youngest province in China since it was established in 1988. During the opening up to the west in the early 1980s, Hainan Island became a special economic zone where free market economies quickly took hold and Hong Kong investment began pouring in. Sanya has benefited from central and local government initiatives aimed at developing Hainan Island's vast potential for tourism.

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