Chinese authorities quickly locked down the southern coastal city of Sanya over the weekend, trapping tens of thousands of tourists after a highly infectious strain of the Omicron coronavirus was detected in the province known as the “Hawaii of China.”
Cases of Covid-19 in China’s Hainan province rose rapidly during the week to a cumulative 828, prompting authorities to abruptly announce a lockdown in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Public transport was suspended, passengers were removed from planes on the tarmac and motorists were diverted from checkpoints to exits in the 1mn beach town, according to local news and social media reports .
China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported on Friday that the outbreak was attributed to the infectious BA.5 Omicron subvariant, which has prompted the reintroduction of restrictions in China’s cities and has become the dominant strain in the countries westerners
Movements have been restricted to emergency services and visitors will have to take five nucleic acid tests within seven days to leave the island, according to state media. It was not immediately known when the measures would be lifted.
A video circulated on social media of a local Sanya airport official, protected by a ring of police, using a megaphone to tell crowds of stranded travelers that they would be booked into hotels for free instead to let them go.
“We want to go home, go home, go home,” the crowd chanted, spurring the official to flee.
President Xi Jinping has vowed to prioritize eradicating the coronavirus outbreak to protect China’s people over the economy. Since financial hub Shanghai was freed from a two-month lockdown in June, sporadic outbreaks of Covid have paralyzed cities across the country.
Sanya, the main destination in Hainan province, is famous for its five-star resorts and luxury duty-free shopping. Hainan has previously benefited from Beijing’s Covid restrictions, which prevented wealthy Chinese from vacationing in Thailand or Europe and boosted high-end spending at home.
But Sanya’s blockade will mark the latest blow to China’s tourism industry and efforts to boost the struggling economy through consumer spending. The economy narrowly missed a contraction in the second quarter.
In the first half of the year, tourist trips fell by 22%, while travel spending plunged by 28%, according to government statistics.
Sanya vacationers took to social media to complain about their confinement. Some reported that the city had ordered hotels to cut prices to half market prices.
“The hotel’s pool and gym are closed . . . we still have to pay for the food,” lamented one user on social media platform Weibo. “The front desk tells customers to complain to the government if they can’t accept this situation.”
Others posted videos of travelers forced to sleep on the floor in the airport terminal and queuing for hours for Covid tests. Local authorities reported an additional 285 cases in the city on Sunday.
While trying to suppress Covid within the country with a combination of lockdowns, mass testing and other restrictions, Beijing has also severely curtailed inbound travel for both citizens and foreigners.
The number of flights into the country each day has plummeted from pre-pandemic levels and the aviation regulator has introduced policies to automatically suspend routes if a flight breaches a threshold of Covid cases, creating turbulence for travelers and the carriers
The Civil Aviation Administration of China, the regulator, announced a slight relaxation of the automatic suspension policy on Sunday. In June, it halved its mandatory quarantine period for international travelers to one week.
Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Beijing