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Trouble in paradise: Chinese tourists left stranded during lockdowns

A few days into a two-week tour through the island province of Hainan — known as the Hawaii of China — Nicole Chan received a message from local authorities that no traveler in the country wants to see in the pandemic.

On Aug. 3, a day after officials reported 11 cases of COVID-19 in Sanya, a city of more than 1 million in Hainan, Chan was identified by authorities as at risk because she had been in the area that day. She was told to quarantine right away for a three-day monitoring period and to undergo two coronavirus tests.

After her isolation period was over and her tests negative, Chan, a freelance videographer, was told that she was not allowed to come to the airport because she had traveled to Sanya. It took 10 more days, 10 canceled flights and more than a dozen negative test results before she was permitted to leave the island and fly back to Shanghai, where she lives.

With China’s borders still shut, some people have turned to domestic travel to find relief from the aggressive testing, mass quarantines and widespread lockdowns that have become common in cities across the country. But China’s commitment to ensuring no COVID-19 cases in a population of 1.4 billion people has meant that even domestic tourists risk traveling to the wrong place at the wrong time and getting stuck there.

“It’s like playing Russian roulette with travel,” Chan said. “So much of it is out of your hands and out of your control.”

Over the past month, during the height of the summer travel season, China has shut down popular travel destinations in Hainan, Tibet and Xinjiang after outbreaks in those areas, stranding tens of thousands of tourists. In some cases, tourists are on the hook to pay for their own hotel quarantines. In Sanya, the government ordered hotels to offer 50% discounts to stranded guests.

China’s hard-line approach of doing whatever it takes to keep COVID-19 under wraps — testing live fish in the port city of Xiamen, among countless other pandemic protocols — has taken a toll on the economy and weighed on the psyche of its citizens.

Travel offers little escape.

Chinese citizens are not allowed to go overseas for “nonessential” trips. Traveling within the country involves navigating a maze of ever-changing quarantine rules and testing requirements that vary by region — and that’s a best-case scenario.

In Sanya, the local government suspended local public transportation and halted sales of rail tickets as part of a citywide lockdown Aug. 6. A day later, all flights departing from Sanya were canceled.

Even though flights were canceled for at least a week, crowds gathered at the airport demanding to leave, according to local media. Videos of angry travelers chanting “Go home, go home, we are going home!” quickly spread online.

Nearby places such as Haikou, the capital of Hainan province, and Wanning, a popular surfing spot, also shut down to curb the spread of the virus.

Michelle Chen, a 30-year-old engineer, traveled to Sanya for a five-day beach vacation with her husband. It was the first trip that she had taken in two years, a getaway after a two-month lockdown in Shanghai. She found the experience in Sanya “surreal,” she said.

One day, people were on the beach having fun in bikinis, and the next, they were trying to flee with their luggage — only to encounter a police blockade on the highway.

Chen and her husband were stranded in Sanya for an additional week, unable to leave their hotel room until they secured seats on a flight chartered by the Sanya government Aug. 13. Now, she’s unsure whether she wants to travel again for leisure.

“I may not travel again for a year except for going home or business trips,” she said. “I really wouldn’t dare to travel in the future without good reason.”

Other popular tourist destinations also experienced lockdowns after reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases. When Tibet reported 22 cases Aug. 8, the first positive results in more than two years, the local government locked down a few popular stops in the area and closed some tourist destinations.

As of Tuesday, more than 4,700 tourists were stranded in Tibet.

Xinjiang, a prime vacation spot for outdoor enthusiasts in northwest China, has had similar challenges, with thousands of tourists prohibited from leaving the region after a recent outbreak. According to an official in Ili prefecture, the group included not just people who had tested positive for COVID-19 but their close contacts, close contacts of those close contacts, and people staying in medium- and high-risk areas.

The severity and duration of the lockdowns has made domestic travel less appealing. In the first six months of this year, the number of domestic tourists in China is down 22% from the same period a year earlier, and tourism revenue is down 28% over that period, according to the country’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

For Zhu Yan, who owns a 16-room hostel by Qionghai Lake, a scenic destination in Xichang, a city in Sichuan province in southwest China, the tourism business has gotten worse as the pandemic has lingered on. In 2020 and 2021, tourists returned quickly even after periods of lockdowns, she said, with most people choosing to travel within their own provinces.

But this year, private companies and public institutions are telling employees not to leave the cities where they live for fear of exposure to COVID-19 and being trapped somewhere else, said Zhu, 40.

“This year, no one came out, including holidays. No one,” she said of the first half of the year. Business has picked up slightly in recent weeks, she said.

The headaches of traveling in China during the pandemic involve difficulties not just with leaving a place dealing with an outbreak, but also with returning home.

Chan, who was stranded in Hainan, had gone to the island for work. Three colleagues from Beijing who traveled with her had to remain behind because they were told that the capital city would not yet let them return.

When Chan finally caught a flight back to Shanghai on Tuesday, she said her plane remained on the tarmac for two hours as medical professionals boarded the aircraft. It was an additional three hours before she arrived at a quarantine hotel, where the travelers finally received some food and workers came to their rooms to administer PCR tests.

On Wednesday, Chan left the hotel expecting to begin a three-day period of at-home quarantine, as required by the city. Instead, she was told by a neighborhood official that she would have to quarantine for a full seven days, she said. By the time she arrived at her apartment, it had been 37 hours since she left Hainan — usually, a 2 1/2-hour flight from Shanghai, she said.

So why would she travel to Hainan in the first place?

Chan, 27, said she was there shooting a promotional video for tourism in Hainan, an irony that was not lost on her.

“Since COVID started in 2020, I’ve done very limited travel within China,” she said. “This experience has made it even less likely. There is too much risk.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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