Released but frustrated: Chinese tourists are struggling to remove Covid travel barriers

Claire Li was looking forward to the trip from Shanghai to her home in Anhui Province after two months of hard blocking. But before the doctoral student could see her family, she had to spend seven days locked in a room with a stranger and bad food at a local quarantine facility.

“Every day there was something new in the meal boxes,” said Li, 24. “Sometimes there were moldy eggs. Sometimes there were rotten potatoes. “

Such awful conditions can be bearable for students with homesickness and other travelers who have not seen their loved ones for months, if not years. But for most tourists and business travelers, they provide a powerful incentive to stay home.

While most residents of Shanghai, Beijing and other cities affected by the closure have been free to travel around their hometowns since early June, venturing outside the city limits is another matter as regions across the country continue to enforce quarantine and other restrictions on outsiders.

The result has been an ever-changing patchwork of ad hoc local quarantines that discourage tourism and business travel across the world’s second-largest economy, further delaying its recovery from President Xi Jinping’s controversial zero-Covid policy.

People from Shanghai, which went through the worst of China’s zero-Covid barriers this spring, have been hit hardest. Two popular tourist destinations – Sanya on the tropical island of Hainan and Dali in the southwestern province of Yunnan – require arrivals from the financial hub to serve three- and seven-day quarantines, respectively, before they can begin their holiday in earnest.

A woman receives a delivery in Shanghai
A woman receives a delivery in Shanghai. The city has undergone two months of severe closure © Hector Retamal / AFP / Getty Images

Even small towns and rural areas far away from the most popular tourist trails are suspicious of arrivals from Shanghai, for fear of bringing Covid-19 with them. While in quarantine in Anhui, Li was annoyed that health workers in her hometown constantly referred to her as “a patient”, even though she repeatedly tested negative for Covid.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Tourism, 80 million trips were made during the three-day dragon boat festival this month – a fall of 11 percent compared to the same holiday last year and 13 percent lower than the last pre-pandemic Dragon Boat Festival in 2019.

“Travel activities will be the last to resume because as long as there is one place with an eruption, it will have an impact on travel across the country,” said Ernan Cui, an analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing.

“I do not expect it to recover very quickly, especially after the recent outbreaks in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing,” she added. “Travel definitely depends on the overall recovery cycle.”

During the Chinese New Year holidays in February, Tennyson Brown-Wolf, an American doctoral student in Beijing, decided to travel to the Harbin Ice Sculpture Festival, after his hotel assured him and a friend that there were no quarantine requirements for outsiders.

But while on their way to Harbin on a high-speed train, the hotel informed them that the guidelines had been changed and that they would, after all, be quarantined. They jumped off at the next stop and took the first train back to Beijing.

“It was chaotic, and I felt powerless,” said Brown-Wolf, who endured a two-week quarantine when he first arrived in China a year earlier. “I felt fear and dread of going through quarantine again.”

Beijing has so far avoided a heavy Shanghai-style shutdown, but a recent eruption has led to the introduction of a number of measures in the capital. As a result, many cities treat Beijing residents as suspiciously as people from Shanghai.

Dali enforces a seven-day quarantine for Beijing arrivals, while Nantong, a second-tier city in eastern Jiangsu province, asks people from the capital to isolate themselves for three days.

Residents of Shanghai and Beijing who are willing to endure quarantines while traveling across the country face an additional risk at the end of their holiday or business trip – the possibility that they may not be allowed to return home immediately.

On Wednesday, Beijing residents hoping to fly home from Xiamen, the capital of southeastern Fujian province, were not allowed to board a plane if they had been in Zhangzhou, a neighboring city of 5.1 million people where six Covid cases were discovered.

Tizi, an influential Beijing-based video blogger with 4.9 million followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, thought she could take a quick trip to Shanghai this month, a few days after the draconian shutdown ended on June 1.

She returned to Beijing by high-speed train on Monday, expecting to spend seven days in hotel quarantine as agreed with local officials in her residential area.

But after landing at Beijing South Station, health officials said she had to board a train and be quarantined at a state-owned facility in Shandong province.

A day earlier, dozens of people had been forced by another train from Shanghai to Beijing and taken to quarantine facilities in Shandong and Tianjin, a large port city bordering the capital, when a suspicious case was discovered on board.

“I’ve been through difficulties, but I can not accept being randomly assigned to a place like this,” Tizi said of the quarantine in Shandong’s capital, Jinan, two and a half hours from Beijing by train.

Tizi used to roam all over China, attend sponsorship events and film content for her followers. But her business model has been shattered by zero-Covid travel risk. “There’s not much I can film at home,” she said.

Further reporting by Emma Zhou in Xiamen and Arjun Neil Alim in Beijing