By Nora Ebaid
Photography by Nora Ebaid and @joekityong
When the pandemic hit early 2020, most countries went into full lockdown closing down all types of travel-related services. This shutdown affected the travel industry greatly. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, and countries that depended on tourism for their economy saw a big change.
Not only has this affected the travel industry economically, but it has in fact changed the whole system of interstate and international travel all over the world. New systems were put in place to protect each country from the spread of the virus. After the initial lockdown, for most countries in March, they slowly opened up for local travel first, then international travel. While international travel remains quite restricted, most countries allow international travel provided each person undergoes the mandatory 14 day quarantine period.
Some people travelled during the pandemic for tourism, others were in need to travel for work and business-related reasons. This allowed countries to create different systems to help ease this process for travellers in this time. Joe Yong Kit travelled from Malaysia to Shanghai for a conference that he was invited to in early November 2020, and explained in detail in his instagram highlight story, the journey he took to travel during the pandemic.
Joe, travelling to China
Joe was invited to attend the conference in November, upon invitation, they issued a PU letter. A PU is an invitation from the government in China and is the first document one is required to have to start the Visa process. “After getting my PU invitation. I also had to apply for permission to leave [Malaysia],” Joe explained.
“Then came the Visa Application process,” he continued. “Usually Chinese Visas are one of the easiest to get… But during COVID season, it’s a whole different ball game. First, the visa centre only opens on Tuesday and Friday from 10am to 3pm. Second, there’s no more express service, visas take one week to be processed.”
Joe explained that since he received his government invitation on a Wednesday, he could only apply for the visa on Friday, and receive it the subsequent Friday, which was two days before his flight.
Joe was also required to take a COVID test (Nucleic Acid test) three days before his flight. As Joe prepared everything he needed to travel ahead of time, he explained during the week of visa collection, “the government changed the SOP (standard operating procedure) for office operating hours and the Visa centre was forced to change its operating hours to 10am-12pm instead, and nobody knew… including me,” he said.
Joe’s COVID travel journey.
Not only did Joe have to book a new flight for a later day, he also had to get another COVID test to be able to fly. On the flight, Joe explained it was like being in a zombie apocalypse movie, with no social distancing on the flight.
His journey in Shanghai was full of surprises; travellers were given QR codes upon arrival to the country. A red QR code meant that the person is in contact with the virus and should be tested immediately. A green QR code meant the person was healthy. No establishments, such as restaurants, museums or businesses were allowed to serve a person with a red code.
Lysandre, travelling to Malaysia
Lysandre Babin, 23, from Canada, was stuck in Malaysia during the lockdown in March, and was only able to return home in June. In October she travelled to France for tourism, and to meet friends and family. “I travelled to Malaysia and to France. Travelling during COVID is actually a dream for a backpacker. There are not so many tourists, the beaches are clean and small businesses like guesthouses and restaurants that relied on tourism are so happy to welcome you,” Lysandre said.
“There are a lot of new sanitary restrictions now, such as disinfecting, wearing a mask and washing your hands every time you enter a place. Also, many businesses are closed and you can’t necessarily do all the activities you planned to do at first. Due to the economic crisis, I could see a rise in the prices at restaurants, transportation (taxi, boat, etc) and for some other activities,” said Lysandre about her observation from her recent travels. Lysandre said that she was surprised by the lack of social distancing in France compared to other countries she travelled to.
As for safety, Lysandre stated that she felt safe while she was travelling in Malaysia and in France during COVID. “There were less people so less crime in the streets,” she said. She continued to say that the restaurants had many sanitary restrictions and that the kitchens were very clean. The importance of cleaning was never there and most likely, it has become a habit that people will continue to prioritize after this pandemic. Another thing Lysandre noted was that there was less pollution in the streets.
“While I was in Malaysia I used to go clean the beach every week and the difference during the pandemic was shocking. There was 80% less trash on the beach. It says a lot about how humans are polluting our beautiful planet,” she exclaimed.
While there has been a lot of heat on young individuals who have been travelling during the pandemic, some travellers have a different opinion. “For the past 5 years I have been travelling and it’s a part of my identity. I don’t think it’s a problem to travel if you follow the government restrictions. At the same time, you are helping the tourism economy that is suffering a lot right now. Travelling during this pandemic is not possible for everyone. I live the digital nomad lifestyle so I can work anywhere in the world. As a Canadian, every time I go back home I have to quarantine for two weeks and many people don’t have the opportunity to do that because of their work, family, etc. I do realize that I’m very lucky to be able to travel during the pandemic and I appreciate every single moment,” Lysandre explained.
Roxy, travelling to Vietnam
Another traveller, Roxy E-khan, a British citizen and ex-journalist, shared with us her experience of her travels during the pandemic in early 2020. “I was in Vietnam in January when I first heard of the Coronavirus and at the start, I was pretty calm about it. Travelling was still fine, everything was open. I left Vietnam and went to Cambodia in February and everything travel-wise was still the same. Easy to get buses, boats, planes etc. We wore masks on transport but that’s pretty normal out in Asia anyway due to pollution,” she said.
But then things took a turn. “I was in Thailand in March when the situation was getting worse, airlines were stopping flights and some country’s embassies were recommending their nationals to come home rather than getting stranded,” Roxy continued. “I spoke to my family and decided it was safer to stay where I was – a little island called Koh Phangan in Thailand rather than to fly home, and put myself in contact with a lot of people and potentially get the virus,” she continued.
Roxy explained her experience being stuck on a remote island during the pandemic. “The first few weeks were pretty stressful. Everyone around me was also in the same position, no one really knew what this COVID thing was and everyone was pretty stressed with what we were being told in the news and generally just not knowing much. The island was closed to new people so after a month we didn’t have any cases and as no one was allowed in, we started to relax. We still had a 10pm curfew and bars were closed, restaurants were takeaway only. However, we could still go to the beach and around the island so it was pretty great,” she said.
“We weren’t allowed to socialise in big groups still which was weird seeing as we were all safe but those were the rules. We also had to wear masks outside. The police would do traffic spot checks on the streets. Then it started to relax as the months went on and then restaurants and bars were open, we could socialise in groups now. We became a community; the people who had stayed there. We’d gone through something together that not many people had and something you’ll probably remember for the rest of your life. COVID had brought us together.”
In June they opened the islands up again, as up to that point travelling around Thailand wasn’t allowed unless it was vital.
“Corona had its pros and cons for all of us. It made countries far less busy of course, tourism was pretty much non-existent. For people who rely on tourism, Corona has taken away their work, their income, their livelihood. It’s been devastating to see people not know how long this will go on for and how to support their families. Then you’ve also seen the environment regenerate, nature has a breather, beaches that were usually trashed by full moon parties and 30,000 people were now in pristine condition and not a single person there except you. I lived there for 6 months and then decided to come back to Europe at the end of September. I came back to London just in time for a second lockdown,” she continued.
When Roxy returned to Europe in October, it was a very different experience, “When I was coming back to Europe in October it was different. We had to take more safety precautions, wear masks, wear plastic visors, I received emails from my airline about precautions they were taking as a company. Different airlines have different policies and rules. On one plane you weren’t allowed to sit next to other passengers, we had to leave gaps but then on another flight, we were all sat next to each other with no gaps. I didn’t have to take a COVID-19 test before flying but some airlines do ask for that,” she stated.
What to expect?
While travelling in corona is very different, the new normal seems to be taking over as long as the pandemic continues. This also means taking precautions while travelling, more safety, more cleanliness and better organisation. Temperature checks before entering airports, always wearing a mask, having to sign into apps and answer questions on health and whereabouts in the weeks before travelling are new ways travellers have to acclaim while travelling. As new rules come to place, travellers ensure to keep up and maintain the overall safety of each place they visit.