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Sanya lockdown traps tens of thousands of tourists in ‘China’s Hawaii’

Chinese authorities hastily shut down the southern coastal town of Sanya this weekend, trapping tens of thousands of vacationers after a highly contagious Omicron strain of the coronavirus was discovered in the province known as “China’s Hawaii”.

Covid-19 cases in China’s Hainan province rose rapidly to a cumulative number of 828 over the course of the week, forcing authorities to announce a lockdown early Saturday morning.

Public transport was shut down, travelers were removed from planes on the tarmac and motorists were turned around from checkpoints at the 1-minute exits from the resort, according to local news and social media posts.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported Friday that the outbreak was due to the contagious BA.5 Omicron subvariant, which has led to the reintroduction of restrictions in cities across China and has become the dominant strain in western countries.

Movements are restricted to emergency services and visitors will have to undergo five nucleic acid tests in seven days 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 the Sanya airport, 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 of being allowed to leave.

“We want to go home, go home, go home,” the crowd chanted, urging the officer to flee.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to prioritize eradication of coronavirus outbreaks to protect the Chinese people over the economy. Since Shanghai’s financial center was released from a two-month lockdown in June, sporadic Covid outbreaks have paralyzed cities across the country.

Sanya, the premier destination in Hainan Province, is known 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 doing high-end spending at home.

But the Sanya lockdown will be the final 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.

According to government statistics, tourist trips fell 22 percent in the first half of the year, while travel spending fell 28 percent.

Vacationers in Sanya complained about their incarceration via social media. Some reported that the city had ordered hotels to cut prices to half the market rates.

“The hotel pool and gym are closed. . . we still have to pay for food,” complained a user on the social media platform Weibo. “The front desk tells customers to file a complaint with the government if they can’t accept this situation.”

Others posted videos of travelers being forced to sleep on the floor in the airport terminal and queue for hours for Covid testing. Local authorities reported a further 285 cases in the city on Sunday.

While trying to quell Covid in 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 to the country per day has fallen from pre-pandemic levels, and the airline regulator has introduced policies to automatically suspend routes if a flight exceeds a threshold of Covid cases, causing unrest for travelers 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 the mandatory quarantine period for international travelers to one week.

Additional reporting by Sun Yu in Beijing

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