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Don't scold us for wanting an overseas holiday

Carefree days at the hotel pool pre-pandemic.

Three years ago I set up a Facebook Group. It was a travel-themed forum aimed at families who were looking for advice and inspiration to swap holiday ideas. Within a couple of months more than four thousand members had joined up, the majority based in Hong Kong or Singapore, and some from further afield such as the UK, Europe and the US.

With a plethora of idyllic, short-haul destinations and plenty of public holidays strewn across the year during which to visit them, Asia was holiday central and the group received tens of posts a day. Advertising and promotion was banned and it became a popular space for a good old fashioned idea exchange and chat.

Looking back, it seems like another world. “Bali or Koh Samui with teens, which has more to do?’ asked one original poster (OP) back in 2019. “Has anyone stayed in Canggu with a toddler and can recommend a resort?” asked another. “Tips for boat trips with kids in Phuket?” came a tail-end of 2018 OP query.

We were holidaying and we were proud of it.

Sadly, eighteen months into the pandemic and with still no end in sight for Asia, admitting you’re heading off on holiday these days is akin to announcing you’re thinking about pimping out your children as drug dealers. Because holidaying in these pandemic times is ‘frivolous’ and ‘dangerous’. (Conversely, travelling across borders to see sick or elderly relatives is ‘acceptable’).

An industry colleague I was sitting next to at a work function recently admitted that she was planning on travelling back to France for the summer. This was during the brief, halcyon period when Hong Kong’s government had reduced hotel quarantine to ‘just’ seven days if you were vaccinated and had an antibody test and unvaccinated children under 12 were exempted from the standard 21 day hotel quarantine order.

She explained that her baby - now a toddler - had never met her parents and after an absence of two years, she desperately wanted to see them again, too. Which of course was all very laudable. But then, almost inaudibly, she added that she was also looking forward to a ‘holiday’ - whisper it. Beaches in the South of France were mentioned. So hushed had our conversation become I would have forgiven other diners for assuming we were planning a gaol-break.

Unfortunately, a sudden back-flip in Hong Kong quarantine policy means that she is now stuck in France, unable to get home to Asia due to a reinstated 21 day compulsory hotel quarantine and not nearly enough hotel rooms to go round.

A friend, now trapped in the US, bemoaned the fact that the dearth of quarantine hotels meant she wouldn’t be able to return to Hong Kong and the rest of her family until at least October. Her trip had been (mainly) to visit her older children at university in the States, but also (whisper it) to have a break. Just the day before she had posted risqué, holiday-style shots of a tourist day out to a local city.

“Well, you knew the risks when you took a holiday during a pandemic,” came the tart response from another ‘friend’.

Because international travel for pleasure these days is for ‘Covidiots’, for people who, even if fully vaccinated, tested and face-masked, don’t care about spreading the virus. They are reckless, selfish and should be publicly humiliated. Quarantine should be maintained at all costs lest foolhardy individuals start thinking they might be able to plan anything so reckless as an overseas trip for pleasure. Brave is the social media user who shares their beach pictures these days.

Holiday shaming, it seems, is now a thing. Admittedly, travelling at the moment does carry a degree of risk. But after 18 months of lockdown, should we really be shaming those who dare to crave a break? Because taking a holiday is not stupid, or selfish or entitled. It is undertaken at great expense and planning. And after all this time, it's not unreasonable for people to want to start living a normal life again.

In fact by not taking a holiday, lives have also been put at risk. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that pre-pandemic, more than US$9 trillion of global gross domestic product was driven by tourism. In 2020, 62 million people globally lost their jobs. Islands such as Bali, Phuket and Boracay once welcomed upwards of four million visitors a year. These days, former workers are reduced to queueing at food banks for handouts. We know that the airline industry is on its knees. Some airlines, like Cathay Dragon, have disappeared completely and with them thousands upon thousands of jobs.

Families who once floated around Bali or Phuket or Siem Reap wondering whether to head to the local water park or to the local market or to the local tourist attraction were essentially putting food on the table for hundreds of local families. Every rattan bag haggled over, every meal consumed, every hotel booking made, every taxi or tuk tuk hailed - poured money into the local economy.

Britain’s The Guardian newspaper published a poignant exposé this week focusing on a number of global tourism workers and what has happened to them since Covid struck. A former guide at Nepal’s stunning Chitwan national park now works 12 hour days as a hotel security guard in the Middle East. He worries that along with the job losses, the pandemic has also put the conservation of the park at risk. Families living on the shores of the once-popular destination of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia have been left surviving on what they can grow. These stories are repeated ad finitum throughout Southeast Asia. It’s looking highly likely that the long term effects of lockdown will be more serious than the virus itself.

Not only are the benefits of travel financial. Mental wellbeing should not be ignored. After more than a year of lockdowns, both domestic and international, we can be excused for feeling clobbered. We shouldn't feel ashamed for simply wanting to down tools and escape for a couple of weeks. With vaccines now available and rigorous testing and screening in place globally, travel is as Covid-secure as anything else. Perhaps even more so than sitting untested and unmasked inside unventilated Hong Kong restaurants discussing French beach breaks.

Rather tellingly, posts in the group about cruising were met with derision eighteen months ago - ‘who would be stupid enough to cruise during a pandemic?’ and ‘petri dishes for the virus’ were common responses. A year-and-a-half of closed borders later, the news that Genting Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean would be offering Covid safe ‘seacations’ out of both Hong Kong and Singapore was met with considerable interest.

Unfortunately Southeast Asia looks like it will be shut down for a while yet, but green shoots are starting to appear. Thailand is desperately protecting its Phuket Sandbox and Samui Plus programmes and it looks like Chiang Mai will be joining them with its own reopening plan this autumn. Phuket has scooped up just 50-odd infections from arriving tourists, proof that the vaccination and testing regime is working.

Places like Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles are also open - and heavily reliant on the tourist dollar.

With children now studying in the UK and Hong Kong’s hard line on quarantine, I am set to spend my autumn in England. If all is still open, I am tentatively planning a cycling trip in southern Spain for the European October school break. I have no relatives in Spain, the trip has absolutely nothing to do with selfless acts for sick friends. As residents of Hong Kong, we haven’t entertained quite such a wild and reckless idea since the summer of 2019 when we spent ten days in Seminyak. As such, I posted a query for recommendations in the travel group.

“Really?! It sounds like you’re planning a holiday,” came an indignant reply.

“I certainly am,” I typed back. “I’m holidaying - and I’m proud of it.”

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