By Martin Quin Pollard and Eduardo Baptista
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – When Chinese businesswoman Yang Jing was planning this year’s summer vacation in 2021, she chose the southern tropical island of Hainan because of its near-perfect COVID record.
The island in the South China Sea has only recorded two symptomatic positive cases of COVID-19 in the entirety of last year. Fast forward to this month, however, the number of cases has suddenly skyrocketed, triggering a lockdown in the city of Sanya and leaving tens of thousands of tourists like Yang stranded on the island.
Sanya, the island’s main tourist hub, imposed a lockdown on Saturday and restricted transport links to try to contain the outbreak, even as some 80,000 visitors enjoyed its beaches in high season. Many are now stuck inside hotels until next Saturday, if not longer.
Yang, along with her husband and son, are staying at an out-of-pocket four-star hotel. The family is eating pasta every day to avoid spending more on food.
“This is the worst holiday of my life,” Yang, who is in his 40s and lives in southern China’s Jiangxi province, told Reuters on Sunday.
Sanya reported 689 symptomatic and 282 asymptomatic cases between August 1 and 7. Other cities in Hainan province, including Danzhou, Dongfang, Lingshui and Lingao, reported more than a dozen cases in the same period.
On Saturday, the sale of train tickets from Sanya was suspended, state broadcaster CCTV reported, citing the national operator, and more than 80% of flights to and from Sanya were cancelled, according to data provider Variflight.
Hainan has been closed to foreign tourists for the past two and a half years since China, in response to the pandemic, stopped issuing tourist visas and implemented strict quarantine rules.
The government of Sanya announced on Saturday that tourists who had their flights canceled will be able to book hotel rooms at half price.
But dozens of tourists complained on Sunday in WeChat groups that their hotels were not enforcing such a rule and still had to pay fees similar to the original prices. Two stranded tourists told Reuters they were in such a situation.
“Now we are looking for ways to claim and defend our rights, but so far no official body has contacted us or taken an interest in us,” said one of the tourists, a woman from east China’s Jiangsu province, who only gave her surname like Zhou.
will never come back
A foreign tourist who lives in China and was honeymooning in Sanya said additional problems for stranded tourists include massive price increases in food delivery fees, hotel meal prices and airfares from Hainan. Food supplies at his hotel were also running low, he said, not wishing to be identified.
“We just hope it doesn’t turn into another Shanghai,” the tourist said, referring to the city’s recent two-month draconian lockdown.
The outbreak in Hainan is the latest challenge to China’s zero COVID policy, after the chaotic lockdown in Shanghai derailed Beijing’s narrative that its handling of the pandemic has been superior to other countries like the United States, which has recorded more than one. million deaths from COVID.
Domestic visitors have kept the tourism industry in Hainan alive for much of the pandemic, but this sudden lockdown risks driving some tourists away for good.
“In short, we will never go back!” said Zhou, who was on vacation with six other family members.
Sanya officials said stranded tourists can leave the island from next Saturday, provided they have had five COVID tests and have tested negative for all of them.
However, Yang said waiting times for test results were long, leading her to take multiple tests a day.
“We don’t know who to turn to, the internet only brings positive news about Sanya, like… the Sanya municipal government has duly resettled the 80,000 stranded tourists… as if the whole country thinks that (we) are not victims but beneficiaries “, she said.
(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard and Eduardo Baptista; Editing by Susan Fenton)