The airports are eerily quiet and have been for almost a year. The once crowded arrival and departure halls look almost practically deserted—social media images have been showing silent hallways and duty-free shops with the shutters down. In December, the World Tourist Organisation (UNTWO) said that international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) fell by 72% between January and October 2020. Industry headlines are of struggling businesses and bailouts, with travel pundits endlessly debating the return of any sense of normality and what the future of travel could look like. Meanwhile, the rest of us struggle to see a time when any sort of tourism will become a reality again.
Despite these conversations, some movement across the globe has endured, even if at a lower rate. Worldwide relocations continued, as did many international and domestic trips the world over, for various purposes. But all those trips showed us one thing: Covid-19 travel looks very different from anything we have seen before.
Nobody wants to consider this heartbreaking scenario, but many people have to travel for family emergencies. At the beginning of 2020, none of us could have predicted how difficult it would be to cross international boundaries or even step foot on a plane. Now, a year on, everyone knows that leaving our country of residence is a risk that we must carefully weigh against any alternatives. For instance, expats living in Australia and New Zealand have had to face scarce flights and strictly controlled quarantine numbers. As a result, many have found it impossible to get back.
The complications of getting home, particularly in a rush, include a lack of flights to the desired destination and strictly enforced quarantine requirements. Tests before departure or on arrival are now routinely required.
Christine, a long-term Doha resident, recently travelled to Chile to visit her ailing parents. As she planned her journey, she was confused by the continuously changing (and sometimes contradicting) information. Her flights were changed several times for various reasons, including the change in the Exceptional Entry Permit in November and misinformation about PCR testing requirements.
Still, the awareness of these potential pitfalls didn’t stop some families. British mum Sharon travelled to the UK in December with her husband, son, and newborn. “I had to do something as family and friends were starting to distance themselves from us,” she says. Sharon’s experience was more positive than what has been shown on British news media and social media. She was encouraged by the social distancing measures and the way people planned outings to make sure they stuck to the rules. She doesn’t regret the decision to travel but admits her family might have made different choices had they needed to quarantine on either end.
Mariam, a British mum, has travelled to the UK from Doha with her family twice since the start of the outbreak, most recently over the winter break. She was impressed with Qatar Airways, which spaced passengers out around the flight and provided face shields for everyone. Halfway through their second trip, Qatar upgraded the UK’s risk level, so they had to scramble to book quarantine rooms in Doha. Still, she remained upbeat about the experience noting that they travelled knowing the risks and that Qatar’s strict measures have kept their numbers down. In fact, she believed that those later restrictions were for the greater good.
For many, the advantages of living in Qatar once included extensive travel opportunities, but Covid-19 has stolen this. While friends and families back home have had many domestic and international options open to them throughout the pandemic, we have been much more restricted, internationally and domestically. Qatar’s size means that national tourism is often limited to staycations and desert camping. So, it was with relief for many to receive the news of a “travel bubble” set up between Qatar and the Maldives. Under the agreement, Qatar residents could travel to select resorts without quarantine restrictions on arrival or return—a huge draw for people who had been put off by travelling for this reason.
Canadian mum of two, Cora, travelled to the Maldives with her husband and two children over the winter. They stayed outside the bubble to enjoy more peace and quiet away from air and sea traffic and experience an authentic desert island atmosphere. Their travel agent provided them with details on which resorts would be open and guidance around Covid-19 protocols.
Of course, like everything during these times, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Three days before they left, the archipelago was moved to Qatar’s “red” list, requiring a one-week stay in hotel quarantine on their return. As the family was eligible for home quarantine due to a medical exemption, they went ahead with their plans, including getting their Covid-19 test two days before travelling. Cora reported the travel experience to be more intense. Check-in for Maldives flights now closes two hours before departure, which means arriving at the airport three hours before travel. Even with the advantage of Al Maha services, there is little spare time after all the documentation checks. But like Mariam, Cora was overall impressed with Hamad International’s response and Qatar Airways’ extra measures. However, she was confused when the bubble and non-bubble travellers were on the same flight.
Once at the resort, Cora and her family were happy with their decision. The Maldives offers natural social distancing, given its outdoor nature. Their rooms were also independent, having separate HVAC systems. Restaurants and most leisure activities are outside, and indoor areas like the gym required reservation time slots and had a one-family limit. Other safety measures included daily temperature checks, masked and pre-quarantined staff, and constant cleaning and sanitising. So, what are Cora’s overall thoughts on the trip? “We had a great time. It was just what we needed after a hectic 2020. The staff were happy and relieved to be working again and it felt good to be supporting a heavily tourism-based economy,” she says.
Still, not everyone left the country to scratch their wanderlust itch. With the wide range of hotels and staycation offers available in Qatar, many have opted to stay and take advantage. Pool and beach visits are not confined to time slots like some countries, and the proximity to a range of top-end restaurants has proven enough for some.
Regardless of the reason for travel, returning has proven to be the hardest aspect. Travellers have had to grapple with uncertainties over border restrictions changing while away, understanding the paperwork and conditions required to re-enter the country, and gaining permission to return. Some families were left stranded, while others have been separated for months.
Christine considered her return nothing short of harrowing. “I had to change my ticket three times, paying fees each time even though the airline claims they don’t charge them,” she says. She took two PCR tests before travelling to ensure she got the results in time and, before boarding, consented to another test on arrival. She had to carry considerable documentation including an Exceptional Entry Permit (this is much more straightforward now that it is automatic). “I had to book into quarantine because Chile was declared high risk 14 days into my trip. There wasn’t immediate availability so I had to wait,” she recalls. Christine also discovered that the last country of transit was the one considered for quarantine restrictions. Unable to fly direct, she transited through Brazil, a high-risk country. The entire ordeal left Christine separated from her family for weeks and too traumatised to travel again during the pandemic.
While Cora and her family had a much more straightforward experience, they also had problems. Despite bringing extensive documentation for her husband’s medical condition, they were almost denied boarding for having no quarantine reservations. Luckily, two last-minute quarantine rooms were available through Discover Qatar. Then, at Hamad International, a duty doctor confirmed their eligibility for home quarantine. A week later, they received a refund from Discover Qatar, minus some non-refundable administrative and transportation fees. Sharon and Mariam, on the other hand, had slow but overall positive experiences returning to Qatar.
What future travel will look like has been widely debated. The idea of travel corridors and bubbles is popular but fraught with problems as planned agreements may be abandoned at the last minute due to unexpected case increases in one of the countries. Another challenge is that quarantine requirements at home or in hotels vary in length depending on the country of origin and destination.
On the other hand, pre and post-travel PCR testing has become the norm (though, unfortunately, as has a rise in falsified documentation). Plus, “digital passports” are being trialled by Singapore Airlines (and soon, Qatar Airways) under the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) watchful eye. Qatar Airways has introduced cleaning robots, and in-house precautions (mandatory masks, constant sanitising, and social distancing) on planes and in hotels are implemented worldwide. These measures could pave the way for safer future travel.
But it is unclear how consumers will change the way they travel. Many analysts are hoping for an overall change in approach, as travellers increasingly appreciate slower, more mindful travel. A growing number are focusing on more time in fewer countries to get to know destinations better.
While Christine, Cora, Mariam, and Sharon had very different experiences, each cautions against bureaucratic requirements that could vary wildly from country to country, misinformed airline and airport staff, and ever-changing border restrictions. There is no easy way to travel during this time. And despite advances with vaccination programmes, contact tracing, and digital documentation, countries remain nervous about opening up again. Whether or not travel will ever return to normal remains to be seen. Overall, in the medium term, experts agree that travel has to be a different experience to the one we have been used to.