Hainan lockdown beach
Photo Credit: Zhong Ming (钟鸣)

How Covid Left Me Stranded in Hainan

My trip to Hainan province was meant to be an island escape, but turned into another Covid-19 debacle

Sanya was a much-needed reprieve after getting through Shanghai’s lockdown. Until it wasn’t.

Pristine beaches, blue skies, and an infinite supply of coconuts greeted us upon arrival in Hainan, China’s southernmost province. It was everything I expected from the tropical paradise and more. We were charmed by an up-and-coming DJ performing at her first big festival in Sanya, an all-women’s surfing competition in Wanning, and a fascinating “floating” fishing village in Lingshui. And then the pandemic caught up with us.

I had arrived in Sanya on July 28, joining over 80,000 tourists enjoying the last remnants of the summer holiday (many reportedly coming from Shanghai, as I had, judging from inbound flight numbers). Along with three colleagues from TWOC, I was on a 14-day mission to shoot videos promoting local tourism. The project had already been delayed for months due to the various Covid restrictions.

On a beach in Hainan, pondering our next plan to leave the island and taking photos, as Covid restrictions ramped, stranded in Sanya

On a beach in Hainan, pondering what we should do next (and taking photos), as Covid restrictions ramped up

We were five days into the trip when we heard about a Covid-19 case detected near Sanya. In all of 2021, Hainan reported two Covid-19 cases. Domestically, it was viewed as one of the safest travel destinations, and received 81 million tourists last year. We thought it was lucky we had left Sanya before the case was detected, and joked about our narrow escape.

The next morning, I didn’t feel so lucky. We received a notice from epidemic control authorities that we would be entering a three-day health monitoring period due to our recent stay in Sanya. We were to minimize excursions and do two Covid-19 tests.

Long queues for a Covid test have become a daily norm in Qionghai and elsewhere in Hainan

Long queues at Covid testing stations have become the daily norm in Qionghai and elsewhere in Hainan

My colleagues from Beijing weren’t nervous. For them, a few days of waiting was no big deal. But as we sat in our hotel in Qionghai, watching Sanya’s case count leap from 1 to 50, then 100 the following day, and 200 the day after that, I knew where this was going. Having spent 62 days under lockdown in Shanghai from April to June of this year, I was convinced cases were likely to keep rising. I knew we had to leave as soon as possible.

People began flocking to the airport. The price for a ticket to Shanghai eclipsed 10,000 yuan, over six times the regular price. I wanted to leave immediately, yet couldn’t due to the three-day health monitoring period. We were stuck until August 7. “There is no way your fight will get canceled in the next two days,” a colleague reassured me. And it didn’t, but the policy to enter the airport changed the evening before my flight.

Flight cancelations stranded aroudn 178,000 tourists in Hainan, with many confined to their hotels

Flight cancelations stranded around 178,000 tourists in Hainan, with many confined to their hotels

Suddenly, people with Sanya on their travel code could no longer enter the airport. We had left Sanya on August 2, so the earliest flight we could take was on August 10, seven days after we left the city. We booked a new flight, but it was canceled the next day. We tried to book the following day on August 11, and the reservation was canceled hours later.

We weren’t the only ones. On Weibo, we read stories about people getting pulled off planes because of a sudden policy change. Stories about people finding out en route to the airport that their flight had been canceled. Stories about people being told at the airport that the PCR requirement had changed with no notice.

Our three-day health monitoring period came and went, yet we still sat in the hotel. Venues no longer welcomed guests with a Sanya travel history. If we checked out, no other hotel would allow us to check in. We could not eat at local restaurants, so we began sampling the entire hotel restaurant menu. An outdoor park turned us away, and also refused to let us fly our drone over their space. Did they believe a drone that had been to Sanya could drop the virus on them? It was certainly not a risk they wanted to take.

Prior to this outbreak, testing for locals was rare. Many people had not tested in several months.

Prior to this outbreak, testing for locals in Hainan was rare

The air grew heavier with anxiety, as the queue for PCR testing got longer and longer. We were testing every day so we could leave whenever possible, under whatever policy. On August 8, the line stretched for two blocks from in front of the hospital, the only testing site in town. I counted 500 people in the queue. The sudden surge in people requiring tests slowed down results, too, with some waiting two days to receive their report.

Covid testers from Anhui arrived in Qionghai to increase the area’s PCR testing capacity

Workers from Anhui province arrived in Qionghai to increase the area’s PCR testing capacity

Our hotel welcomed a medical team from Anhui, and the next day the number of local testing venues increased from one to 11. The hour-long queues were mitigated, and suddenly the food in the hotel improved as well. The cheeriness was short-lived, as hotel staff soon informed guests that we were to be relocated as a precaution for the medical team. We quickly packed and headed to a hotel in the neighboring district, only to be stopped at the border because Sanya was still on our health code.

The young man at the makeshift checkpoint seemingly had one instruction: nobody from Sanya enters. After we failed to persuade him (we were being relocated by the government, after all), we returned to our original hotel for more arguing with hotel management, before being escorted across districts to our new hotel with the rest of the ex-hotel guests.

It’s hard to keep the policies straight. Later, passengers with five negative PCR tests within seven days starting August 6 were allowed to leave Hainan. But that changed in the last few days: now, passengers with three negative PCR tests spaced one day apart and government approval are allowed to leave the province. On August 10, Shanghai announced passengers returning from Hainan were required to undergo seven days of quarantine: three in a centralized facility, and four at home.

We have since been approved to depart on August 13, but flights we booked for that day have already been canceled. Now we hope to leave August 15, but it could be another date in August, or (hopefully not) September.

We are a long way from home.

Local residents, as well as tourists, have endured disruptions to their lives due to the outbreak

Local residents, as well as tourists, have endured disruptions to their lives due to the outbreak

Photographs by Nicoco Chan, Dragos Cacio, and Zhong Ming (钟鸣)


author Nicoco Chan

Nicoco Chan is the multimedia editor of TWOC.

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