Chinese authorities hastily locked down the southern coastal city of Sanya over the weekend, trapping tens of thousands of holidaymakers after a highly infectious Omicron strain of coronavirus was detected in the province known as “China’s Hawaii”.
Covid-19 cases in China’s Hainan province rapidly rose over the week to a cumulative 828, forcing authorities to abruptly announce a lockdown early Saturday morning.
Public transportation was suspended, travellers were removed from planes on the tarmac and motorists were turned around from checkpoints at the exits of the beach town of 1mn, according to local news and social media reports.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported on Friday that the outbreak was attributable to the infectious BA.5 Omicron sub-variant, which has driven the reintroduction of restrictions in cities across China and become the dominant strain in western countries.
Movements have been restricted to emergency services and visitors will be required to take five nucleic acid tests in seven days in order to leave the island, according to state media. It was not immediately clear when the measures would be lifted.
A video circulated on social media of a local official at Sanya airport, protected by a ring of police, using a megaphone to tell throngs of stranded travellers that they would be booked into hotels for free rather than being allowed to leave.
“We want to go home, go home, go home,” the crowd chanted, spurring the official to flee.
President Xi Jinping has vowed to prioritise eradicating coronavirus outbreaks to protect China’s population over the economy. Since freeing the financial hub of Shanghai from a two-month lockdown in June, sporadic Covid outbreaks have paralysed cities across the country.
Sanya, the main destination in Hainan province, is famous for its five-star beach resorts and duty-free luxury shopping. Hainan has previously benefited from Beijing’s Covid restrictions, which prevented wealthy Chinese from holidaying in Thailand or Europe and driving high-end spending at home.
But the Sanya lockdown will mark the latest blow to China’s tourism industry and efforts to boost the ailing economy through consumer spending. The economy narrowly missed a contraction in the second quarter.
In the first half of the year, tourist trips fell 22 per cent, while travel spending collapsed 28 per cent, according to government statistics.
Holidaygoers in Sanya took to social media to complain about their confinement. Some reported that the city had instructed hotels to reduce prices to half of market rates.
“The hotel pool and gym are closed . . . we still have to pay for food,” lamented one user on social media platform Weibo. “The front desk is telling customers to go complain to the government if they can’t accept this situation.”
Others posted videos of travellers forced to sleep on the floor in the airport terminal and queueing for hours for Covid tests. Local authorities on Sunday reported an additional 285 cases in the city.
While attempting to suppress Covid inside 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 plunged 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 turmoil for travellers and 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 travellers, to one week.
Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Beijing