'Since March 9th — just 231 hours ago at the time of writing — the travel world has been pummelled to the brink of total disintegration. We were already feeling the slump — once COVID-19 hit the mainstream news on January 16th, demand for Asia holidays began slowing to a trickle during what should’ve been our busiest months of the year. On the last day of January we were announced as Wanderlust Travel Magazine's 'Top Tour Operator of 2020' and despite my joy at being reacquainted with the golden gong, there was no denying the tense atmosphere at the accompanying Destinations Travel Show. The scale of the situation at first seemed equivalent to one of the natural disasters, or terror related tragedies, that we have regrettably had to work around in the past, but quickly grew into a shockwave the likes of which we’d never seen. Our normally cheerful and rather noisy sales team became tense, and far too quiet.
We looked for reasons to be hopeful. Despite the lack of new enquiries, hardly any existing customers were cancelling their holidays. I suppose that was the ‘watch and wait’ stage, when everyone was glued to the news and wondering what on earth was going on. But things stated to change very fast indeed when two of our clients were placed under quarantine in Saigon, not long after arriving on the Vietnam Airlines, VN54, that had carried a single infected passenger.
Vietnam had already successfully reduced a count of 16 confirmed cases to zero, without loss of life. This time they again acted fast, tracking down and quarantining everyone who’d been on the flight, and anyone who had stayed in hotel rooms and boat cabins that any of these same passengers had used. A day later, two more clients found themselves being removed from their luxurious Halong Bay junk boat and placed in far less scenic surroundings.
As we scrambled our local teams to get food and emergency supplies to our quarantined clients, we began to hear rumours of changes to immigration policy. As I stood outside my favourite Brighton restaurant (the Chilli Pickle, in case anyone’s interested) on the Sunday afternoon, listening to my Vietnam operations manager explain that the visa waiver was likely to be withdrawn, my imagination fell entirely short of what unfolded on Monday, Tuesday...
On the morning of Monday March 9th, we had clients inside Vietnam, more arriving within days and weeks... but zero certainty that they’d be able to get into or stay in the country, let alone without being quarantined. Using the best available intelligence, we took the decision to reroute some clients who were about to arrive in Vietnam from Cambodia. By the end of the following day, although there was still no official confirmation, our excellent local team was certain that nobody should enter Vietnam, with or without a pre-arranged visa.
9 – 11th March
Our increasingly downcast office burst into overdrive, informing and assisting the clients already on holiday in Vietnam, and on the phones to those about to depart. Despite the disappointment, most were grateful for our early action, and open to suggested changes, relieved to be avoiding a potentially disastrous holiday. The situation was shifting fast, and rumours of further quarantines were spreading... the Cu Chi Tunnels Quarantine Centre is not on our recommended hotels list.
I was on the phone daily to a group of other tour operators, one of the great strengths of small independent agencies being their willingness to collaborate and help each other out, never more so than in a growing crisis. Between us, we extracted the clients who were already in Vietnam, and got them home, or on to travels elsewhere. Job done. Sleep? Who needs sleep?
It was exhausting, but rewarding, in a way, since we were finally able to do something useful. We found ourselves (not for the first time, I might add!) feeling extremely lucky to be working with such a wonderful group of clients, all fellow travel enthusiasts and thus prepared to deal gracefully with the unexpected.
There was still no sense of what was to come, no reason to believe that this would extend beyond Vietnam's borders.
12th - 13th March
By Thursday, earlier rumours of India suspending visas was confirmed. Come Friday and additional FCO travel updates begun. Still no advice against travel but certainly more strongly worded for a few destinations. By the end of Friday, I noticed that my team were developing rather glazed expressions as they acknowledged how quickly things could possibly now tumble. Visas suspended in Vietnam, India… where next? Borders closed around Bhutan, shortly after Nepal announced that all new arrivals from many destinations would be immediately quarantined for a fortnight. I’ve stayed in some pretty flaky hotels in Nepal over the years, and quarantine there is not something I’d like to experience. Mongolia was next. Thailand, the queen bee of Asian tourism, started to wobble. We helped a client out of Bhutan, ducking the Nepalese quarantine by a matter of hours, as the switchboard lit up — finally! — except the calls were all from existing clients, enquiring about cancelling future trips.
Alongside all the week’s unprecedented rescue work, many of the team were attending ‘at risk of redundancy’ meetings. I started this company in my spare room; 28 of us now enjoy the sea views together in our shared Brighton office. My team’s support, and willingness to make any changes that will help minimise redundancies, brings a lump to my throat every time I think about it. Our industry is at the tip of the COVID-19 iceberg, and just a week earlier I'd spent a very emotional afternoon talking them all through the maths, the models, and our best stab at projections. One week is another world in coronatime. The need to lose some of them is unavoidable. They’re all brilliant; not one of them deserves this, and during the entire crisis they’ve shown nothing but the greatest consideration for each other, and care for their clients.
We’ve been working hard to support clients who’d like to postpone their holidays, and those doing so have incurred little if any extra costs. Of course, some would rather cancel, which we fully understand. But the travel industry is in utter turmoil, and of course we hope to protect it and everyone that is part of it. In Asia itself, its collapse would cause a great deal of poverty. So. We were (and still are) hoping that most people will choose to postpone...
With the weekend upon us, and such a frantic week behind us, we needed to let off steam. The pub was bittersweet that afternoon — so much positivity from everyone, despite the situation, but that hollow feeling in my gut because I knew that some of the faces wouldn’t be there the next time.
14th - 15th March
And we were officially in freefall. Spain blocked its borders. Europe begun to wobble. The FCO warnings became a blizzard. The Indian state of Kerala imposed mandatory quarantine on any clients to be found in their hotels (cue Karl arranging a hasty extraction from a train, avoiding the hotel and taking our clients directly to the airport to catch a hastily booked flight out of the country). The airlines were melting down under the weight of enquiries and cancellations.
As we left the office on Saturday afternoon, I started to hear rumours of problems in Sri Lanka — reports of village mobs forcing a group of tourists into a DIY quarantine, with authorities preparing to make significant changes. My phone didn’t stop the entire afternoon as I came to terms with the imminent challenge.
Sunday. Free Sri Lanka. We hastily helped five sets of clients ‘escape’, rushing them across the island before flights were stopped. For added tension, there were rumours of the airport closing altogether, and further reports of disgruntled locals.
By the end of the weekend, Indonesia and Myanmar joined the FCO’s ‘do not travel’ list, with rumours that Cambodia would follow. One of my team, exhausted, joked that the only safe place left was Malaysia.
Free Myanmar, with Lionel at the helm, extracting four unsuspecting sets of clients. Thanks to our well connected partner in Myanmar, we were hearing well informed, early rumours of British nationals being quarantined without official COVID-19 negative certificates. No such thing existed. Throughout this entire situation, clients have (naturally!) been disappointed that their holidays were brought to such an abrupt close, some after just a couple of days abroad. Many of them have been blissfully unaware of the incredibly rapid decline happening around the world. By the 16th, well over 40 countries were on the FCO list, and despite their disappointment our clients were grateful for our decisive action. Homeward flights were jumping in price at mind-boggling speed — an hour’s delay would cost £100s of pounds.
Started early. 1.30am early, with another client extraction, this time from the depths of Malay Borneo (yes, of course Malaysia had now been added to the list!). By breakfast in the UK, the flights had been arranged, our local team was driving the couple to their hotel, and our thankful clients were enjoying one last holiday meal.
And then the FCO advised against travel to….everywhere.