Fueled by a highly contagious Omicron subvariant – which authorities trace to contact with foreign seafood traders at a fishing port – the outbreak has infected more than 1,200 people in Sanya since August 1. It has also spread to a dozen other cities and counties in Hainan, infecting more than 200 others.
That’s a big outbreak by the standards of China’s zero-Covid policy, which aims to quickly wipe out local flare-ups with quick lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantine.
On Saturday, the Sanya government hastily cordoned off the city of millions, including around 80,000 tourists. Visitors wishing to leave must have five negative Covid tests taken over a seven-day period and authorities have not said when the measures will be lifted.
Public transport was halted, movement of people within the city was restricted to emergency services, and transport links were shut down.
More than 80% of flights from Sanya were canceled on Saturday, according to data from flight-tracking company Variflight. All trains departing from the city have also been canceled, state broadcaster CCTV said on Saturday.
A video widely circulated 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 officer promised the government would provide free food and hotel accommodation to travelers stranded at the airport while a ring of police stood around him and pushed the crowd back.
“I want to go home! Go home! Go home!” The crowd sang in response.
China’s borders have been closed to international tourists since the pandemic began, meaning tourist hotspots like Sanya have become even more reliant on domestic travelers.
The Sanya government said Saturday that tourists with canceled flights could book discounted hotel rooms. But for some families, the forced week-long stay may still come at a hefty price – especially as the Chinese economy has been hit by zero-Covid.
On Sunday, state-run news website The Paper reported that a family of 13 from the southwestern city of Chengdu would have to spend about $26,600 for an extra week at their five-star hotel, including more than $100 in fees per person for lunch and dinner buffets.
The report caused a stir on Chinese social media, with a related hashtag attracting 270 million views on China’s microblogging site Weibo as of Monday afternoon. Many comments expressed sympathy for the family, while others questioned why they hadn’t moved to a cheaper hotel. After the outcry, the family said they could access cheaper dining options at the hotel.
Other social media posts from trapped tourists in Sanya accused some hotels of raising their prices to take advantage of the forced stays. At a press conference on Sunday, the Sanya government promised to look into the complaints.
It said more than 3,200 tourists stuck at the airport on Saturday would be given room and board for seven days. And about 5,000 workers have been sent to Hainan from other parts of the country to help with a mass Covid test drive, officials added.
when will it end
For many stranded tourists, the biggest concern is whether they will be allowed to leave the country again after seven days. They fear the lockdown could be extended if infection numbers rise despite the restrictions.
Schools in China are due to reopen after the summer break in three weeks, as are some businesses must 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 stranded tourists were residents of Shanghai who later went to Hainan for the summer vacation persevering a grueling two-month lockdown in China’s financial center earlier this year.
A foreign resident of Shanghai who arrived in Sanya on July 26 said he had to leave his hotel last Thursday because it was confiscated by the local government as a quarantine facility. The hotel only gave him a day’s notice and left it up to him to find alternative accommodation, he said.
In the past five days, he has waited in long lines for six Covid tests, he said.
“This situation in the future is unsustainable,” said the tourist, who asked not to be named for fear of a nationalist backlash. “It’s a bit like Russian roulette where you go and whether or not that area will be locked down.”
For many travelers, aware of the country’s Covid restrictions, Hainan was considered a safe place because very few cases have been reported in the past.