‘China’s Hawaii’ promised escape. Tourists got lockdowns instead

Beijing, China – When Annie Shu flew to the “Hawaii of China” in Hainan in July, she hoped to enjoy a much-needed break after enduring a two-month lockdown at home in Shanghai.

Instead, Shu, a digital marketing expert in her early 30s, found herself enduring yet another lockdown as she battles the island province’s largest outbreak of Covid-19.

Shu, originally from Hong Kong, has been confined to her hotel room in the popular resort city of Sanya since August 2, barred from going out for air.

Shu has no idea when she can leave her hotel or return home.

While the Shanghai resident will fly to the mainland on Saturday, after her original flight was pushed back by three days, she doubts she will be able to travel as she awaits guidance on when her airline can resume operations.

“Flying through Hainan is one thing,” Shu, who asked not to use a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera. “Getting into Shanghai is another problem because we still don’t know where we will be quarantined in the city or if the city will let us in.”

According to Chinese state media, about 178,000 vacationers, including about 57,000 from Sanya, are stranded on the popular resort island.

More than 2.9 million residents in the provincial capital Haikou and nearby cities and towns are under lockdown as authorities struggle to contain the spread of more than 2,000 cases reported since the start of the month.

About 178,000 holidaymakers are stranded in Henan, including about 57,000 from Sanya, according to Chinese state media. [File: Reuters]

On Wednesday, China’s National Health Commission said the outbreak in Sanya remained at a “high level” and that more than 10,000 medical personnel from 19 provinces had been deployed to Henan to help with mass testing.

The commission added that two national emergency and rescue teams have taken charge of makeshift hospitals for treatment.

Henan provincial authorities have stated that travelers affiliated with a group or hotel, or travelers from districts, counties or cities can leave the island only after two negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests within 48 hours. They should also have clear symptoms for the past three days. For now, only Chinese nationals can upload their test results to the app to get clearance.

Even as the rest of the world learns to live with the coronavirus, China is clinging to an ultra-strict “Zero Covid” policy aimed at containing the outbreak at all costs.

Although Beijing credits the policy with saving lives, it has come at the cost of on-and-off restrictions on people’s movement and economic activity that have yet to end nearly three years later.

Josey Chen, operator of a Shanghai-based travel agency, said Beijing’s zero-tolerance approach has made it difficult for local tourism to survive and he believes the measures are getting “out of control”.

Many tour groups were able to escape the pandemic with the help of domestic tourism alone, but the sudden lockdown and risk of quarantine made many Chinese hesitant to travel to the country, Chen said.

“Nobody can challenge the ‘Zero Covid’ policy – not even big business,” Chen told Al Jazeera.

Chen fears the influx of foreigners during the Chinese winter holiday will worsen the situation for the industry.

“The trend is worsening,” she said. “Locals can no longer afford to travel because many small tour agencies have already closed down.”

Chen said the best travel agencies can offer travelers more destination options and are willing to compromise when customers are caught up in sudden restrictions and closures.

Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
Authorities in the Tibetan capital Lhasa have temporarily closed the famous Potala Palace as mass testing for COVID-19 continues. [File: Reuters via China Daily]

Despite Beijing’s tough strategy, officials have increasingly played whack-a-mole since the emergence of ultra-infectious Omicron subvariants such as BA.5.

Elsewhere on the mainland, the National Health Commission has warned of a “high risk of spread” in Tibet, where there are 28 confirmed cases. In the capital Lhasa, authorities have set up a 2,000-bed temporary hospital with the capacity to test 300,000 people a day. Officials have temporarily closed tourist spots, including the famous Potala Palace, and suspended major events while mass testing continues.

In Xinjiang, authorities reported 122 new infections on Tuesday, bringing the total number of active cases to 536. Authorities in the capital Urumqi on Wednesday announced a five-day “stabilized management” period that includes business closures, public transport suspensions and suspensions of public transportation. Closure of residential communities.

In Beijing, officials announced this week that incoming travelers will be barred from entering the capital if they come from cities, counties or districts that have reported any cases of Covid-19 in the past 14 days. Later the authorities brought this period down to 7 days.

No wonder domestic tourism has declined due to strict government controls.

Last month, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism said domestic tourist trips totaled 1.45 billion in the first half of 2022, down 22 percent from 1.87 billion in the same period a year earlier.

“What we do now is just to pray for luck,” Chen said. “We’ve sacrificed a lot on the financial side of the situation.”

no hope

In a WeChat group created to deal with the isolation of the Hainan lockdown, Shu and other Shanghai-based expatriates share hopes for an end to their ordeal with the latest developments in the districts where they are stuck.

One group member recently managed to join a charter flight to the mainland but has to spend about RMB 5,000 ($743) for a 14-day hotel quarantine after getting off the plane.

Many have been frustrated by the chaotic plan to move tourists from hotels to pre-flight quarantine facilities, which vary depending on the travelers’ hotels and points of origin and departure.

“Given my experience in Shanghai, I have no real hope that the ‘seven-day quarantine’ the authorities have told us will go ahead,” Shu said.

“We all know that what is happening now is not sustainable. After the incident in Shanghai, many foreigners and investors left the country. Most of my friends have also left.”

As Shu waits for her flight back to Shanghai, she pauses to question the authorities. After being stuck in two lockdowns in a few months, she becomes depressed and has given up hope of getting clear answers.

“My strategy now is to follow what the authorities say because there is nothing I can do anyway,” she said.

“What I can do is control my emotions and attitude. But how long can I do it? i don’t know But eventually, I will reach my breaking point. Hopefully, they will scrap the ‘zero covid’ policy before that happens.

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