A turbulent era of travel created by COVID-19 restrictions has made some Australians reluctant to leave their country, even as others were stranded overseas and struggle to return home.

Australian Penny Wilson, who had been living in Canada for about three years before returning to her hometown of Perth in July 2021, said she found it unsettling to know she might not be able to return to her family in an emergency. (Submitted by Penny Wilson)

A turbulent era of travel created by COVID-19 restrictions has made some Australians reluctant to leave their country, even as others were stranded overseas and struggle to return home.

Repeated delays, non-refundable tickets for flights that don’t exist and one-way costs reaching $10,000 to $30,000 are among the hurdles Austalians have faced trying to get home during the pandemic. Tens of thousands have been stranded overseas. 

Meanwhile, Australians — who have been renowned as frequent travellers — have been subject to rules that prohibit travel out of the country — citizens included — without an exemption. 

“If you’re not living here, you don’t really understand just how pervasive and absolute it is,” said Canberra resident Nina Bowbridge, who lived in New York City before returning to Australia in December 2019. 

“This sounds really awful, but I’m not sure I would have made the decision so easily to come back if I had thought that I wasn’t going to be able to go again,” said Bowbridge, who worked outside Australia for the United Nations for about seven years. 

Measures also stifled the flow of incoming travel by putting caps on the number of Australians and permanent residents allowed in. In Australia’s most populous state of New South Wales, the number of incoming passengers was capped at 750 per week from July until October.  

Nina Bowbridge, pictured here in Romania, says she might never have returned to Australia had she known how difficult it might become to leave. (Submitted by Nina Bowbridge )

Hotel quarantine at a cost of about $2,500 to $3,000 per person has long been a requirement for those returning. International tourists are still banned altogether.

On Nov. 1, international travel reopened in the state of New South Wales, which started relaxing lockdown precautions last month after the vaccination rate reached 80 per cent (in people aged 16 and over). Vaccinated Australians can now leave the country without an exemption from the government. 

The changes have also made it easier for many overseas Australians to return, and immediate family members of Australians are now allowed to visit. 

Unsure about leaving

But stories about individuals stuck overseas, living in hotels after flight delays or unable to return to see sick relatives or attend funerals have made some Australians uncertain about leaving the country again. 

The Sydney airport recorded fewer than 10,000 international passengers in the first week after reopening on Nov. 1. There were 1.3 million for the whole month of November in 2019. 

“I had kind of assumed that that door would be open for me,” said Bowbridge, who had built a career around international work.

“It’s not that it’s not open … I don’t trust that the door won’t be shut at any given moment.”

Bowbridge, pictured here in South Sudan, built a career in international work but now doesn’t feel she can leave Australia without the risk of getting stuck overseas. (Submitted by Nina Bowbridge)

Some airline industry estimates put the number of Australians stuck overseas in mid-2020 at around 100,000. Official numbers have been lower, ranging from between about 30,000 to 50,000. 

About 43,000 Australians now overseas are registered with the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return home, a spokesperson said, noting the number changes frequently according to people’s circumstances.

‘Anxious and stressed’

Vancouver Island couple Lucy Dunne and Kelsi Johnstone were living in Airbnb accommodation for more than a year after their first flight to Australia was cancelled in April 2020. 

On the day of this interview they were four days away from a flight to Sydney, which they booked when they learned international travel to and from that city was resuming. 

“It’s terrifying, to be honest,” said Dunne, who is originally from Australia.

“Anxious and stressed are two of the biggest words that we keep sort of talking about because the reality is we sold our car here. We don’t have anywhere to live.

“If it doesn’t happen, it’s also devastating.”

Lucy Dunne, left, and Kelsi Johnstone were living on Vancouver Island and waited for more than a year and a half for an attainable route to return to Australia. (Submitted by Lucy Dunne)

Dunne and Johnstone had planned to move to Australia to be closer to Dunne’s family, but continuing delays put them in a holding pattern while they waited for an attainable travel option.

Dunne said it has been awful knowing that restrictions or related flight issues could stop her from returning to Australia in an emergency. 

“And I feel such sadness for … the other people,” she said. 

“There’s almost like this joint feeling when you’re an Aussie on the outside of Australia, like you just feel it differently when you hear about these stories of … [people] couldn’t get back for their partner’s funeral or these dramatic things that are happening.”

In the end, the couple successfully flew to Sydney this week, before travelling on to Melbourne. 

‘A very strange goodbye’

Johnstone, who is Canadian, said Australia’s approach to date makes her think the country could shut down international travel again if the pandemic situation changes. But she and Dunne said they are both prepared for that possibility, and that they will continue to travel as soon as it feels safe.

Johnstone flew from B.C. to Alberta to say goodbye to her grandmother in case she cannot return in an emergency.

“It was a very strange goodbye because obviously she’s like, in the flesh, happy, healthy, everything’s great.” 

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Canadian Cally Duncan describes why she decided to sail back to Australia after the country lifted its strict pandemic border restrictions. 3: 05

Gabby Walters, an associate professor in tourism at the University of Queensland, has been studying Australian attitudes to international travel.

Of 560 Australians she surveyed for a study released Tuesday, she said only 51 per cent of respondents were willing to travel overseas.

“The key reason for that reluctance to go is purely because of the apprehension around, ‘Will I get locked out of the country, will I not be able to come home,'” said Walters.

“And we’ve been exposed to that time and time again. There’s a lot of sad stories out there in the media around people who are still stranded overseas.”

‘Unspoken contract’

Australian Penny Wilson had been living in Canada for about three years when she returned to her hometown of Perth in July 2021. 

Wilson said she also found it unsettling to know she might not have been able to return to her family in an emergency.

“There’s this kind of unspoken contract that you will get home as quickly as possible if something happens,” said Wilson. 

“You justify it to yourself. ‘I can get home in 24 hours if I need to.’ And then suddenly that’s no longer true.”

Wilson lived in Canada for three years but says she’d be reluctant to leave Australia again until she felt more confident she would be able to return. (Submitted by Penny Wilson)

Wilson, who is a doctor, did COVID-related work on Vancouver Island in the year leading up to her return to Australia. 

She said seeing the impact of COVID-19 during outbreaks makes her grateful to live in Western Australia (WA), which blocks incoming travel from other states where there are cases of the coronavirus. There are currently no cases of COVID-19 in the community in WA.

“I certainly wouldn’t be hurrying out of the country right now. With things the way they are … the restrictions are just too, too much of a burden.” 

‘The cost that this has had’

Wilson said many Australians have been kept safe from COVID-19 at the expense of those living overseas in places where the pandemic was a greater risk. 

“I think people here don’t appreciate the cost that that has had on overseas Australians,” said Wilson, who would like to travel again when she feels there are fewer risks.

Twenty-one international airlines stopped flying their regular routes to and from Sydney during the pandemic. Eleven have announced they will be resuming services between November and January.

Cally Duncan is sailing to Australia after deciding to spend the money it would cost to fly on a sailboat. (Submitted by Cally Duncan)

Cally Duncan is on her way back to Sydney, but she won’t be going by air. 

Earlier this year, she decided it was a better financial and personal decision to buy a boat and sail back to Australia than to pay high ticket prices and possible quarantine costs.

Originally from Canada, Duncan has been in Alberta and B.C. since she found herself in her home country after an emergency while sailing in 2020. 

When she decided to move back to Australia, where she had lived for 16 years until the pandemic, the price of a more reliable airline ticket from Canada had skyrocketed.  

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“Most of them were in … the [$10- 15,000] range. But when I think about spending $20,000 on just getting home when that normally costs [$2,000] — that, as an accountant, is not a financial decision I’m willing to make.”

Speaking from her boat as she sailed off the Virginia coast, she said she won’t be rushing back, so it could take up to a year to get there. It’s a trip she’s always wanted to do. 

Duncan hopes that by the time she gets there, the travel restrictions and quarantine measures in Australia will have been relaxed.

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