Ningbo, a laid-back, green city in coastal Zhejiang province, was a strong candidate to become the nation's east coast financial, commercial and shipping center back in the 1980s when China began opening up to the world. Instead, that accolade was given to Shanghai. Ningbo, meanwhile, settled into a thriving niche as one of China's most successful high-tech manufacturing and import and export cities. Trade, rather than tourism, was its thing.

But the government realized something was missing: tourism revenue. Ningbo's seaport—ranked among the top in the world—provides fast access to the Zhoushan archipelago of islands, including the Buddhist retreat and tourism magnet of Putuoshan. Many of the islands are being developed for tourism and watersports, and Ningbo is surrounded by pretty canal villages, ancient ruins, accessible mountains and beautiful Dongqian Lake.

In addition, the world's longest sea bridge, measuring more than 22 mi/35 km, spans Hangzhou Bay, cutting driving time between Ningbo and Shanghai to about two and a half hours.

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