China's Strict COVID Policies Decimating Tourism Industry Ahead of 2022 Olympics

China's strict "zero tolerance" COVID-19 policies are decimating the country's tourism industry ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the Associated Press reported.

The strategy of trying to isolate every case and stop transmission has kept the death and infection rate low, but travel restrictions have made potential tourists nervous about traveling to areas they might be unable to leave.

"Two years ago, this was our busiest season," said Wang Hui, manager of the Beizhong International Travel Agency. "Now, customers tend to postpone their plans because of the outbreaks. This year is worse than last year."

The country has also been largely closed to foreigners to help curb the spread of the virus and its variants.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

China COVID-19 Beijing Olympics
China's "zero tolerance" strategy of trying to isolate every case and stop transmission of COVID-19 has kept the country where the virus first was detected in late 2019 largely free of the disease. Above, a woman adjusts her face mask as she walks by a statue featuring Beijing Winter Olympics figure skating on display at the Shougang Park in Beijing on May 2, 2021. Andy Wong, File/AP Photo

Foreign athletes are due to compete in the Winter Olympics that start February 4 in Beijing and the nearby city of Zhangjiakou, but the government has yet to say whether restrictions that prevent most foreigners from entering China will be relaxed to allow spectators in.

The government has yet to give final details on anti-coronavirus measures for the Winter Games. Some 2,900 athletes are due to compete, plus 800 more in the Paralympic Winter Games on March 4-13.

China has reported 4,636 deaths—and none since February—out of 95,577 cases since early 2020. Its total is smaller than one-day new infection figures in the United States, India and some other countries.

Since July, outbreaks blamed on travelers bringing the more contagious Delta variant into the country have occurred in Nanjing west of Shanghai, Putian and Xiamen in the southeast and Yunnan province in the southwest. But cases number in the dozens, not the tens of thousands of new daily infections seen in other countries.

"The zero-tolerance policy has been highly effective in putting COVID under control, but the short-term cost is also extremely high," economists Larry Hu and Xinyu Ji of Macquarie said in a report.

"People are clearly worried that they could get trapped in tourist destinations if Covid cases emerge," economist Iris Pang of ING said in a report.

Authorities on September 12 suspended most access to Putian, a city of 2.9 million people in Fujian province, after an outbreak that an official newspaper, Global Times, said might have begun with a resident who returned from Singapore. Cinemas, bars and other public facilities were closed. Supermarkets and restaurants were ordered to limit customer numbers.

Xiamen, a coastal business center in Fujian with 3.5 million people, closed off access to some neighborhoods after cases were detected there. Schools shut down.

The Global Times said a man who returned from Singapore on August 4 was suspected of spreading the virus to Putian.

The traveler, identified by the surname Lin, underwent a 14-day quarantine and nine nucleic acid and serologic tests, all of which were negative, the Global Times said. But he tested positive on September 10.

Despite that, the screening and quarantine process is working properly, according to Yu Changping, a physician at the Department of Respiratory Medicine of People's Hospital of Wuhan University.

"There is no special change in the situation," Yu said. "There is no need to adopt measures different from the past."

Some experts suggest China might need to adopt more flexible tactics because "zero tolerance" is too disruptive and new variants might be impossible to eradicate.

"The bottom line is, I don't think they can keep the virus out, and they need to live with the reality," said Nicholas Thomas, a professor of health security at the City University of Hong Kong.

Chinese leaders have tried to squelch public discussion of such a possible change.

A prominent disease expert, Zhang Wenzhong, faced official criticism after he said on his widely read social media account the world needs to "learn to coexist with the virus."

A former health minister rejected Zhang's suggestion in a commentary published by the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily. The university that awarded Zhang's Ph.D. in 2000 announced an investigation of accusations of plagiarism but concluded his work "met all the criteria" for the degree.

For now, tourist arrivals from abroad are shut down. That has devastated high-end hotels and resorts.

Some engineers and other employees who were abroad when the government shut down travel in early 2020 have been allowed to return, but lawyers and others say they were turned away.

Authorities also are trying to keep Chinese from leaving the country. The government refuses to issue or renew passports without an important need to travel. Businesspeople have been told that doesn't include visiting customers or business partners.

As is true elsewhere, online grocers and other e-commerce have reaped a windfall from shutdowns and lockdowns.

But a wave of bankruptcies has hit small shops, restaurants and other businesses.

In another blow to tourism, the government told students and teachers to avoid travel during September's Mid-Autumn Festival and the October 1-7 National Day break.

"There used to be a silver September and a golden October for travel, but now we have nothing," said Wang, the travel agency manager in Tianjin.

China COVID-19 Restrictions
China's strict "zero tolerance" policy against COVID-19 has kept the country largely virus free but has decimated the tourism industry. Above, a child undergoes a nucleic acid test for COVID-19 in Xiamen, in China's eastern Fujian province, on September 14, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images