Driven by a highly contagious Omicron subvariant – which authorities attribute to contact with foreign seafood vendors 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 other people.
It is a major outbreak by the standards of China’s zero Covid policy, which aims to quell local outbreaks quickly with instant lockdowns, mass testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantine.
On Saturday, the Sanya government hastily cordoned off the city of one million people, including some 80,000 tourists. Visitors wishing to leave must show five negative Covid tests taken over seven days, and authorities have not said when the measures will be lifted.
Public transport has been suspended, movement of people within the city has been restricted to emergency services and transport links have been disrupted.
More than 80% of flights out of Sanya were canceled on Saturday, according to data from flight tracking company Variflight. All trains leaving the city have also been cancelled, state broadcaster CCTV said on Saturday.
A video widely circulated on Chinese social media shows a local official trying in vain to appease dozens of frustrated travelers outside the airport police station.
Speaking into a megaphone, the official pledged the government would provide free food and hotel accommodation to travelers stranded at the airport, as a ring of police stood around him pushing back the crowds .
” I want to go back home ! Come home ! Come 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 can book discounted hotel rooms. But for some families, the forced stay of a week can still be expensive, especially since the Chinese economy has been battered by zero-Covid.
On Sunday, state-run news website The Paper reported that a family of 13 from the southwestern city of Chengdu are expected to spend around $26,600 for an extra week in their home. five-star hotel, including charges of over $100 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 Chinese microblogging site Weibo on 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 were able to access cheaper dining options at the hotel.
Other social media posts from tourists trapped in Sanya have accused some hotels of raising prices to take advantage of forced stays. At a press conference on Sunday, the Sanya government pledged to look into the complaints.
He said more than 3,200 tourists stranded at the airport on Saturday would be given seven days of accommodation and food. And about 5,000 workers had been sent to Hainan from other parts of the country to help with a mass Covid testing campaign, officials added.
When will this end?
For many stranded tourists, the biggest concern is whether they will be allowed to leave after seven days. They fear the lockdown could be extended if the number of infections increases despite the restrictions.
Schools in China are due to reopen after summer vacation in three weeks, and some businesses may not allow employees to work remotely for weeks.
On Monday, Sanya airport canceled all 418 flights, according to flight tracking site Variflight.
Among the stranded tourists were Shanghai residents who had gone to Hainan for summer vacation after sustainable a grueling two-month lockdown in China’s financial hub 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 requisitioned by the local government as a quarantine facility. The hotel only gave him a day’s notice and left it to him to find alternative accommodation, he said.
In the past five days he has lined up for six Covid tests, he said.
“This situation going forward is unsustainable,” said the tourist, who asked not to be named for fear of nationalist backlash. “It’s kind of like Russian roulette about where you’re going and whether that area is going to be locked down or not.”
For many travelers aware of the country’s Covid restrictions, Hainan was considered a safe place because in the past, it has reported very few cases.