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Famous for its sandy beaches, luxury resorts and duty-free shopping, the city of Sanya on of China The tropical island of Hainan has long been a popular getaway for middle- and upper-class Chinese families.
But since the weekend, what started as a leisurely getaway has turned into a stress-filled travel nightmare for tens of thousands of holidaymakers trapped in a sudden lockdown imposed by authorities to limit the spiraling Covid outbreak.
Driven by a highly contagious subvariant of Omicron — which authorities blame on contact with overseas seafood traders at a fishing port — the outbreak has infected more than 1,200 people in Sanya since August 1. It also spread to a dozen other cities and counties in Hainan, infecting more than 200 others.
This 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, Sanya’s government hastily locked down the city of a million people, including about 80,000 tourists. Visitors wishing to leave must show five negative Covid tests taken over seven days, and authorities have not specified when the measures will be lifted.
Public transport was suspended, the movement of people in the city was restricted to emergency services and transport links were suspended.
More than 80% of flights leaving Sanya were canceled on Saturday, according to data from flight tracking company Variflight. All trains leaving the city were also cancelled, state broadcaster CCTV reported on Saturday.
The massive, sudden flight cancellations led to scenes of chaos at the airport on Saturday when some passengers who had already boarded were ordered to shoot down the planeaccording to state media reports.
A video widely shared on Chinese social media shows a local official trying in vain to calm dozens of frustrated passengers outside the airport’s police station.
Speaking into a megaphone, the official promised the government would provide free food and hotel accommodation to travelers stranded at the airport as a circle of police officers stood around him pushing the crowd away.
“I want to go home!” Go home! Go home!” the crowd chanted back.
China’s borders have been closed to international tourists since the start of the pandemic, meaning tourist hotspots like Sanya rely even more on domestic travelers.
The Sanya government said on Saturday that tourists with canceled flights can book hotel rooms at a discount. But for some families, the forced week-long stay could still come at a high price – especially as China’s economy is 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 fees of more than $100 per person for buffet lunches and dinners.
The report caused a stir on Chinese social media, with a related hashtag attracting 270 million views on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo as of Monday afternoon. Many comments sympathize with the family, while others question why they didn’t move to a cheaper hotel. After the protest, the family said they had access to cheaper food options at the hotel.
Other social media posts from stranded tourists in Sanya accused some hotels of raising their prices to profit from the forced stay. At a press conference on Sunday, Sanya’s government promised to look into the complaints.
It said the more than 3,200 tourists who remained at the airport on Saturday would receive seven days of accommodation and food. And about 5,000 workers have been sent to Hainan from other parts of the country to help with mass Covid testing, officials added.
For many stranded tourists, the biggest worry is whether they will be allowed to leave after seven days. They fear the lockdown could be extended if the number of infections rises despite the restrictions.
Schools in China are due to reopen after summer vacation in three weeks, as are some companies may not allow employees to work remotely for weeks at a time.
On Monday, Sanya Airport canceled all 418 of its flights, according to flight tracking website Variflight.
Among the stranded tourists were residents of Shanghai who had then gone to Hainan for a summer vacation durable 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 had been requisitioned by the local government as a quarantine facility. The hotel gave him just one day’s notice and left him to figure out alternative accommodation, he said.
In the past five days, he has waited in long queues for six Covid tests, he said.
“This situation going forward is unsustainable,” said the tourist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of a nationalist backlash. “It’s a bit like Russian roulette as to where you’re going and whether that area is going to be locked down or not.”
For many travelers, considering the country’s Covid restrictions, Hainan was considered a safe place because very few cases have been reported in the past.
Other tourist hotspots have also recently been hit by sudden lockdowns. last month there were more than 2000 tourists trapped in the southern Chinese resort city of Beihai after a lockdown was imposed on more than 500 infections.