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Stranded in paradise: Tourists struggle with cancelled flights and shut borders

World News | Published:

Thousands of tourists escaping cold weather in Europe are scrambling to find alternative ways to return home.

Thai beach

From the sun-soaked beaches of Thailand to the foothills of Mount Everest, tourists across Asia are finding their dream vacations have turned into nightmares as airlines cancel flights and countries close borders in the fight against coronavirus.

Thousands of tourists escaping cold weather in Europe are scrambling to find alternative ways to return home from the Thai island of Phuket in the Adaman Sea.

Ksenia Vostriakova and her friends were scheduled to fly back to Moscow on April 3 on a Singapore Airlines flight, but it was among those cancelled when the airline slashed its operations.

They have booked a flight on Qatar Airways for April 6 and are hoping nothing else changes.

Tourists on a beach in Phuket
Tourists on a beach in Phuket (Penny Wang/AP)

“Now we’re really worried that this flight also might be cancelled,” Ms Vostriakova said, adding that their Thai visas run out in mid-April.

Thailand came under a state of emergency this week as the government gave itself new powers to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. The country, which last year welcomed 39 million tourists, announced it was closing its borders to nearly all foreigners, and national airline Thai Airways said it was suspending almost all flights.

The Airports Council International Asia-Pacific said on Friday that 12 major hubs in Asia-Pacific had seen an average decrease in air traffic of more than 80% in the second week of March versus the same period last year.

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Up to 10,000 tourists are believed to be stranded in Nepal after the government ordered a complete lockdown that halted all flights and road travel to prevent the spread of the virus, the tourism board said. Most businesses and government offices were also shut.

Spring is the tourist season for Nepal when thousands of visitors come to hike the mountain trails.

Stranded German tourists wait for a bus to take them to the airport in Kathmandu
Stranded German tourists wait for a bus to take them to the airport in Kathmandu (Niranjan Shrestha/AP)

At Lukla Airport, the only gateway to the Mount Everest region, there were more than 200 trekkers stranded, according to Dhurba Shrestha, an airport official. Even if major roads were open, the closest one is three days’ trek downhill.

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Officials are working on arrangements of special flights to at least get tourists back to the capital Kathmandu.

The German government on Friday arranged a rescue flight — a Qatar Airways charter — that left the capital with 305 people on board, mostly German nationals.

In Kathmandu’s tourist enclave, visitors could still be found wandering around empty streets. A handful of restaurants and hotels were still open, but most shops were closed. Police were blocking locals from moving around but not tourists.

“We were supposed to leave on March 21 but we are still in Nepal and waiting for our embassy to help us arrange a flight,” said New Lee Kuan, from Malaysia.

Sri Lanka said it was ready to help an estimated 18,000 tourists return home either on scheduled flights that are still operating or special charters if required. The country is under a nationwide curfew until at least next week.

The scene in Sri Lankan capital Colombo
The scene in Sri Lankan capital Colombo (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

In Indonesia, more than 2,500 foreign tourists are stranded in Bali, the most famous of the country’s more than 17,000 islands. The government has granted all tourists automatic visa extensions after long lines formed at immigration offices.

Visitors to Thailand have not been so lucky. Hundreds of tourists seeking visa extensions were crowded on Friday under a row of awnings next to a makeshift immigration office set up on the outskirts of Bangkok after throngs formed at the main building.

There was not enough room for the tourists to keep their distance and stay in the shade so most were pressed up almost against one another.

Shopping centres, bars, sit-down restaurants, public swimming pools and many other places have all been ordered closed in Thailand, but for now, Phuket’s beaches remain open.

That is good news for Russian tourist Vitaliy Kurikov, who has been spending his days playing with his son on the white sands of Bang Tao beach.

“If they close the beaches, I really don’t know what to do,” he said.

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