Hong Kong (CNN) — The city of Sanya, on the Chinese tropical island of Hainan, is known for its sandy beaches, luxury hotels and duty-free shopping. It has long been a popular getaway for middle- and upper-class Chinese families.
However, since the weekend, what began as a holiday getaway has turned into a stress-filled travel nightmare for tens of thousands of tourists, who find themselves trapped in a sudden lockdown imposed by authorities to curb an outbreak. of covid that is spreading.
The outbreak, fueled by a highly infectious omicron subvariant that authorities blame on contact with overseas seafood dealers at a fishing port, has infected more than 1,200 people in Sanya since Aug. 1. It has also spread to a dozen other cities and counties in Hainan, infecting more than 200 people.
It is a major outbreak by the standards of China’s “zero Covid” policy, which aims to quickly quell local outbreaks with sudden lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantine.
On Saturday, the Sanya government hastily locked down the city of a million people, including some 80,000 tourists. Visitors who want to leave must show five negative covid tests taken over seven days, and authorities did not specify when the measures will be lifted.
Public transport was suspended, the movement of people within the city was restricted to emergency services, and transport links were interrupted.
More than 80% of flights out of Sanya were canceled this Saturday, according to data from flight tracking company Variflight. All trains leaving the city were also cancelled, state broadcaster CCTV said on Saturday.
Mass and sudden flight cancellations sparked scenes of chaos at the airport on Saturday, as some passengers who had already boarded were ordered off the plane, state media reported.
A video widely shared on Chinese social media shows a local official trying in vain to placate dozens of frustrated travelers outside the airport police station.
Speaking into a megaphone, the official promised that the government would provide free food and hotel accommodation to stranded travelers, as a ring of police officers stood around him and pushed the crowd back.
“I want to go home! Go home! Go home!” the crowd chanted in response.
China’s borders have been closed to international tourists since the start of the pandemic, meaning tourist hotspots like Sanya are even more reliant on domestic travellers.
The Sanya government said on Saturday that tourists with canceled flights could book discounted hotel rooms. However, for some families, the forced stay of a week can come at a high cost, especially since the Chinese economy has been affected by the zero covid policy.
On Sunday, state-run news website The Paper reported that a family of 13 in the southwestern city of Chengdu would have to spend about $26,600 for an extra week at their five-star hotel, including charges of more than $1. 100 per person for lunch and dinner buffets.
The report caused a stir on Chinese social media, with a related hashtag drawing 270 million views on Chinese microblogging site Weibo as of Monday afternoon. Many comments expressed sympathy for the family, while others wondered why they hadn’t moved to a cheaper hotel. After the protest, the family said they were able to access cheaper food options at the hotel.
Other social media posts from tourists stuck in Sanya accused some hotels of jacking up their prices to profit from forced stays. At a press conference on Sunday, the Sanya government promised to look into the complaints.
The government said that more than 3,200 tourists stuck at the airport on Saturday would receive seven days of accommodation and food. And some 5,000 workers had been sent to Hainan from other parts of the country to help in a massive Covid-testing campaign, officials added.
When will it end?
For many stranded tourists, the biggest concern is whether they will be allowed out after seven days. They fear that the confinement will be prolonged if the number of infections increases despite the restrictions.
China’s schools will reopen after the summer break in three weeks, and some companies may not allow employees to work remotely for weeks.
On Monday, Sanya airport canceled all of its 418 flights, according to flight tracking site Variflight.
Among the trapped tourists were Shanghai residents who had come to Hainan for summer vacation after enduring a grueling two-month lockdown in the Chinese financial hub earlier this year.
A foreign resident of Shanghai who arrived in Sanya on July 26 said he had to check out of his hotel last Thursday because it was requisitioned by the local government as a quarantine facility. The hotel only gave him a day’s notice and left him to his own devices to find another lodging, he said.
In the past five days, he has stood in long lines to undergo six Covid tests, he said.
“This situation is unsustainable,” said the tourist, who asked not to be named for fear of a nationalist backlash. “It’s a bit like Russian roulette on where you go, and whether or not that area is going to be confined.”
For many travelers aware of the country’s covid restrictions, Hainan had been considered a safe place because it has reported so few cases in the past.
Other tourist attractions have also recently been hit by abrupt lockdowns. Last month, more than 2,000 tourists were trapped in the southern Chinese resort city of Beihai after a lockdown was imposed following 500 infections.