( AFP ) - More than 100 of the most beautiful women on the planet have gathered on a Chinese holiday island ahead of Miss World 2007 and for what organisers hope will be a pageant with a purpose.
Dismissed by some as a sexist anachronism, the Miss World Organisation is using Saturday's 57th contest to spread the message about HIV/AIDS. It also coincides with World AIDS Day.
It is the fourth time in the past five years the event has taken place in Sanya, on the southern island province of Hainan -- dubbed the "Chinese Hawaii".
At Sanya a tourist resort boasting palm trees that overshadow sugar-white beaches has been eked out and largely separated from the more traditional and less affluent urban areas where the local population lives.
This weekend all eyes will be focused there as Miss World 2007 will attract an estimated global audience of two billion people in more than 200 countries, according to the event's United Kingdom-based organisers.
And on Friday the 106 contests were taking part in last-minute rehearsals ahead of the live televised final at the Beauty Crown Plaza, which was specially built for when Sanya first hosted the event in 2003.
Hopes are high here that Miss China -- Zhang Zi Lin, a 23-year-old secretary from Beijing --- will live up to her billing as a pre-contest favourite and take the crown in front of what is likely to be a partisan audience.
Miss China's biggest threat could come from Ada Aimee De La Cruz, or Miss Dominican Republic. The 21-year-old student, whose ambition is "to work in the beauty business," is red-hot favourite with one British bookmaker, ahead of Miss China and Miss Lithuania.
Outsiders include Miss Belize, Miss Nepal, Miss Sierra Leone and Miss Singapore, as well as McKeyla Antoinette Richards, representing the small tropical Caribbean island of Curacao.
Of the nations not represented, there is no Miss Myanmar (formerly Burma) and most Muslim-majority countries do not take part, although Miss Malaysia, Miss Indonesia and Miss Turkey are notable exceptions.
There is also no contestant from Taiwan -- it and the Chinese mainland have governed themselves separately since their split in 1949 and ties between the pair remain tense.
While Miss World draws sniggers in many developed countries, it has been linked to deadly violence in the past and the organisers are keen to use this year's contest to spread AIDS awareness.
In 2002, it was forced to move from Nigeria to London after more than 200 people were killed and 500 injured amid fighting between Muslims and Christians after a newspaper there suggested the Muslim prophet Muhammad would have chosen a wife from the contestants had he been alive.
In the same year militant Islamic groups in Nigeria denounced the pageant as promoting promiscuity, and several contestants threatened to pull out in protest at a Sharia death sentence passed on a Nigerian woman convicted of adultery.
Miss World Organisation chairwoman Julia Morley, widow of contest founder Eric, has invited Nelson Mandela's eldest daughter and his grandson Mandla Mandela to be special guests on Saturday -- Mr Mandela's son Makgatho died of an AIDS-related illness and the family are active campaigners.
"One of the major challenges that we face is HIV/AIDS," said Mandla at a press conference in Sanya on Thursday. "We have lost loved members of our family, including my father. It was because of my father's passing that we decided to unite as a family to try to do something about the spread of the epidemic."
As well as being held on World AIDS Day, Miss World 2007 also comes a week after Chinese state media reported hotels in Beijing have been ordered to stock condoms in every room in response to a spike in new HIV infections in the capital.