TRAPPED IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
THE PERSPECTIVE OF A FULL-TIME TRAVELLER IN THE GLOBAL COVID-19 EPIDEMIC
There is a perspective that isn’t being voiced as loud as it deserves right now: the one of the foreign traveller trapped abroad. The internet is saturated with information and speculation surrounding the current coronavirus situation, but there is a lack of understanding for those people who can’t get home in all of this pandemonium. People like us.
But, we are not one of few: there is a huge number of people that are stuck in a foreign country right now, during the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic.
It may be a surprise to read that there are tens-of-thousands of people out in the world right now that are trapped overseas, unable to get home due to over-inflated flight prices and new travel restrictions imposed by many countries (that now extend to banning travellers from transiting or connecting flights in some countries). These new travel restrictions have led to thousands of cancelled flights, with potential refunds taking in excess of 28 business days to be processed and returned to customers. Of the very few flights that are actually taking off, most of them are now triple or quadruple the price that they were before the pandemic.
Although it’s a scary time for everybody, for those people who are not in their native countries right now, it can be terrifying. Localised lockdowns and curfews mean that overland, domestic travel can be impossible. Regional buses and trains have been cancelled altogether in order to intensify the rules surrounding social-distancing. In many countries worldwide, all but non-essential businesses have been forced to temporarily close, in order to help mitigate the spread of the virus. This list of “non-essential” businesses includes hotels and restaurants; the very businesses that the average traveller would need to survive. It is as though many authorities have completely overlooked the basic needs of the foreigners trapped within their borders, leaving them with potentially nowhere to stay, and nothing to eat.
Like most countries, India has also implemented a full nationwide lockdown. However, the lockdown in many Indian cities is so strict that the streets are completely empty, with foreigners (and most locals) too afraid to leave the confines of their accommodation. With online footage of the police beating people on the streets with canes, it’s easy to see why foreigners are afraid.
And, hotels in some Indian states are being instructed by their government to refuse entry to foreign nationals, making the situation even more dangerous. With a blanket international commercial-flight ban across the country, leaving is also impossible. Making it even more difficult for foreigners to leave, the Government of Kerala has also advised that a health clearance certificate is required by any foreign national before they will be permitted to board an outbound international flight (if/when they occur).
Many people in this situation have even faced backlash on social media, saying that they should have flown home a long time ago. There is a general misunderstanding that these people have somehow brought this on upon themselves. Yet, this group of people extends much further than the irresponsible cheap-vacation-hunting holidaymakers, that saw the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity for a spontaneous budget vacation.
With many flights at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic (late February to early March) being significantly cheaper than the regular price, some made the reckless decision to take the opportunity to embark on a cheap getaway. These people are, understandably, finding a lack of sympathy for their self-inflicted situation.
However, most of the people abroad do not fall under this category. There are also expats and full-time travellers, gap-year travellers and backpackers. These people were only recently made aware of the dire situation worldwide.
The truth is that, for most of the world, this craziness is only very recent. In many countries, the lockdowns and curfews have only come into place in the last week or fortnight. For someone in Europe, it may have seemed like the impending travel bans were obvious, but from the other side of the world it might have come as somewhat of an overnight shock.
This is particularly the case when you factor in that many people in foreign countries don’t speak the local language, and subsequently don’t understand any local news. Most tourist destinations across the world are somewhat isolated from the rest of the country that they are a part of. This makes it even harder to judge a situation outside of the small community you’re surrounded by. Therefore, knowing that large numbers of foreigners reside in tourist enclaves, it becomes easier to understand the lack of up-to-date knowledge on the situation in the host country, or globally.
But, by the time it was clearly communicated with those abroad that it was necessary to fly home immediately, it was all a little too late. Most airlines had already cancelled the majority of their flights, and numerous countries had shut their borders indefinitely.
On March 23rd, the UK Minister Of Foreign Affairs announced that all UK nationals abroad should return home immediately. This was 3 days after most of the world had shut their borders to foreigners, and international flight prices had skyrocketed (or been cancelled all together). It’s not that people were choosing to ignore the advice of the authorities, it’s that it wasn’t possible to follow their advice.
And then there’s the argument that retreating back to your home country isn’t the best decision. For many long-term travellers, going back “home” means travelling to Europe or the US. With the pandemic sweeping through the US and Europe at an alarming rate, would it not be much more sensible to stay indoors and self-isolate if funds allow? Many travellers abroad right now have no job to return to, and no place to live in their home countries.
It seems an unnecessary risk to return to a country with far fewer job opportunities than six months ago, and drain the economy and drive unemployment rates up. Another risk being that travelling on a packed aeroplane is defying the social-distancing rules all together, and is almost certain to put many more people at risk.
Finally, there’s the issue of expiring visas. Whilst some countries (like the UK & Indonesia) have reevaluated their immigration policies due to the exceptional circumstances imposed by the pandemic (for example: free extension of any visa up until 31 May), many countries have not. Countries like Thailand have yet to make any kind of effort to help those trapped in the country because of the current travel limitations and their own advice to self-isolate.
As of writing, in order to get an extension on any visa in Thailand, a letter from your local embassy is needed (proving your inability to leave the country — usually in the form of a cancelled flight confirmation) along with a 1900 Baht fee (around $60), as well as a long trip to a very overcrowded immigration office. An overcrowded immigration office where following the basic principles of social distancing are all but impossible.
This means that hundreds of people are unintentionally overstaying their visas. They are staying in the country illegally and consequently facing high “overstay” fines and potential imprisonment — despite trying desperately to leave the country.
Our own coronavirus story began around mid-March. At this point, we were almost 7 months into our potentially unended backpacking trip across the US and Asia. We were in Goa, in Southern India. Originally, we weren’t really sure how — or even if — the coronavirus pandemic was going to affect us or our travels at all. From our perspective at the time, it was as though nothing had changed.
And then, things started to change all at once: flights got rescheduled or cancelled; visa requests got denied; hand sanitiser disappeared from the shelves. Our original plan was to meet my partner’s mum in Sri Lanka in about 10 days time. As she was flying out from the UK, her visa was denied and her flight cancelled. That same day, our flight was rescheduled from a 3 hour direct flight, to 30 hours with two separate layovers. As this was out of our control, it gave us the option to cancel for free.
Once we got the news that our flight to Sri Lanka had been rescheduled, it was time to come up with a new, quick solution. Assuming it was better to not fly into Sri Lanka now, we used the free cancellation offered by the airline and cancelled the flight altogether. We were lucky.
Our solution was to get to a country that we’d happily spend the next month in, stationary. It was whilst researching this part of the new plan, that we realised that coronavirus wasn’t going to blow over like we had initially assumed it would.
Learning of all of the new travel restrictions that had recently been put into place, we realised that it was essential to get out of India quickly. If we were to miss our window of opportunity, we’d likely be stuck inside India for the foreseeable future.
So, we decided there were two places that we could happily stay stationary for a month or more: Bali & Chiang Mai, Thailand. In either of these places, we could rent an apartment on Airb’n’b for a month at a time, and we could spend the time working on our new travel blog and other creative projects.
As we had never been to Bali, it was our first choice. However, fate had a different plan. The only flight available from Goa to Bali connected in Malaysia. The day before we were supposed to take off, Malaysia shut its borders down entirely to all foreigners. Subsequently, our flight was cancelled.
So, that evening we booked a new, last-minute flight to Chiang Mai, for the next morning. Everything worked out well, and here we are.
Our main goal was to make sure that we were safe, and following the local rules. As this is a continuously evolving situation, we knew that curfews and lockdowns would be inevitable wherever we ended up. Therefore, we knew we needed to rent an apartment, so that we could be completely self-sufficient.
Thailand essentially closed its borders to foreigners just a few days after we arrived. Chiang Mai closed all but essential businesses the day after that. Anything that isn’t a supermarket or a pharmacy is deemed an ‘unessential business’, and is no longer open.
Luckily for us, we booked accommodation with the means to cook for ourselves. We only go out to get food essentials, and spend the rest of our time hiding out in our condo. It’s easy for us to practice social-distancing and self-isolation like this.
WAS IT THE RIGHT THING TO DO?
Yes and no.
If we had stayed in India any longer, we’d currently be experiencing the nationwide curfew that’s being enforced by police on the streets beating offenders with canes. At least here, in Chiang Mai, we feel safe (and we can still go outside to get groceries or medicine).
The UK is still on full lockdown (and has been for over a week now), so we’d be struggling to find work. With Europe (and the UK) being the COVID-19 hotspot that it is, it’s also probably best to wait a few more weeks before returning. Otherwise, we risk getting sick and potentially aiding in the spread of the virus to those we come into contact with. Particularly after boarding the flight back.
However, if we had flown home in mid-March, we wouldn’t be experiencing this stressful situation that is going on right now. We would be at home, searching for jobs and going about our regular, everyday lives.
Overall, I do believe that we have made the best decisions with the knowledge we had at the time.
ARE WE SCARED?
Neither of us technically have a home, as we are travelling full time. We also don’t have jobs back in our home countries, so it can get scary when we think too hard about it.
Money is my biggest concern right now, as no one is sure how long this situation will last. The uncertainty of it all makes it a strange situation. There’s no telling how long it will take to get a flight back home to the UK, and then get a job.
For now we are comfortable. The Thai government is encouraging social distancing and self-isolation, which we are trying our best to adhere to. For now, we have enough money to survive for a few more months if needed.
There are rumours that the Thai government will allow for an automatic extension on tourist visas very soon, giving some margin for those of us who are potentially unable to leave before our visas expire. That should give us perhaps another month to get back home.
The UK government has very recently announced that they are spending £75 million on helping to get those who are stuck abroad home. This perhaps means that they will follow the lead of other European countries like Germany and Switzerland, who have both arranged multiple charter flights across the world, in order to get their citizens home. If not, we hope that flight prices will level back out again within the next couple of months, so that we won’t need to rely on credit cards to get home.
As of writing, a flight between Bangkok and London — leaving in the next 2 weeks — is currently hovering around the $1250 mark. That’s around 4 times the usual price for the same flight.
We are currently spending our time working on our writing and creative projects. We’ve created a daily routine in order to not go too crazy. It’s important for us to keep busy during this mad situation.
OUR PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR
LAPTOP – Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch
SMALL CAMERA – Olympus OMD- E-M10 Mark II
ZOOM LENS – Olympus M.Zuiko 40-150mm Lens
DSLR BODY – Canon 60D
WIDE ANGLE LENS – Sigma 10-20mm Lens
DRONE – DJI Mavic Pro
ACTION CAMERA – GoPro Hero 7 Black Edition
MICROPHONE – Rode VideoMicro
CAMERA BAG – Lowepro Fastpack 250 AW II
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