II am writing this in isolation in a hotel room in Hong Kong. The city, which has closed its borders to non-residents, requires that most people be quarantined for 21 days at a designated hotel upon arrival.
Due to these strict rules, Hong Kong has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of inbound and outbound travelers. But unlike the average Hong Konger, I have had the opportunity to travel through four regions of the world in the past six months: Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and America. It was eye-opening to see how each place reacted to travel during a pandemic.
At the end of 2020, I moved from Hong Kong to Barbados. I had applied for the Barbados Welcome Stamp, a 12-month digital nomadic visa released by the Caribbean Island last year. It allows remote workers around the world to spend a year working from “paradise”.
I arrived in Barbados in December 2020 with the intention of staying for a year. But my plans changed and I decided to go back to Hong Kong at the end of April, and I had to travel around the world to get there.
Hong Kong, 2020
I booked to leave at the end of 2020 with a one-way ticket with Virgin Atlantic. The route would take me first to London for an overnight stopover and then to Bridgetown, Barbados.
International travel for leisure has not been a thing in Hong Kong since the city closed its borders to non-residents and implemented a mandatory quarantine for all inbound travelers in March 2020, and therefore get a Covid test. to travel was an alien concept.
Those traveling to Barbados must bring with them a negative PCR test taken three calendar days before arrival.
Most of the clinics I spoke to only offered testing done on deep throat saliva samples. This was the test method accepted by the entries to mainland China.
Since there was hardly anyone leaving Hong Kong, there was little information from other travelers.
London, December 2020
When I arrived in the UK it had not yet implemented any rules for arrivals to enter with a negative Covid test: these were mandatory from January 2021. I passed immigration to Heathrow, then I went to hail a cab to an airport hotel.
I was really surprised to see the driver not wearing a mask. In Hong Kong, the wearing of the mask had been de rigueur ever since we started hearing about a virus emerging in mainland China in early 2020 – weeks before it officially received the Covid-19 name in February 2020, and certainly before the government imposed wearing a mask in public in July 2020.
London was closed at the time, and I spent all day and night in my hotel room, only going out to pick up the take out food I had ordered. The hotel staff wore masks which was reassuring.
The next morning I was back at Heathrow for the second leg of my trip to Barbados. Without the fact that travelers were wearing masks, I wouldn’t have known we were in the middle of a pandemic: the airport was packed and there was a long line at my check-in counter.
Barbados, December 2020 to April 2021
The quarantine in Barbados looked like a formality.
When I arrived, the quarantine for incoming travelers lasted for about three days. We were to come in with a negative Covid test, called the “first” test; get tested three days after the “first” test; and stay within the confines of our designated quarantine accommodation while we await the results of our “second test”.
Note that the regulations in Barbados have changed since my arrival. According to the latest protocol, inbound travelers can expect to be in quarantine for seven days. Fully vaccinated travelers will be quarantined pending the results of their Covid test taken on arrival – a period of approximately 24 to 48 hours.
I landed on a Monday, took my test on a Tuesday at a government facility, and was cleared out of quarantine on Thursday night. Friends who were in town at the same time told me they could spend less time in quarantine getting tested with a private doctor, rather than at a government facility.
I was surprised to see the staff deliver meals to me in person and have me sign my bills. I assumed there would be no contact. Some of them were not wearing masks. I also know that some properties allowed quarantined guests to use some of the shared facilities inside the hotel, such as the swimming pool.
That’s not to say that Barbados doesn’t take quarantines seriously. In January 2021, Love island Star Zara Holland has been arrested and appeared in Barbados court after breaking quarantine rules.
But it is also a good example of the cavalier attitude of some tourists, which is said to have contributed to the emergence of a cluster of Covid cases in Barbados after the Christmas and New Year period.
Barbados is heavily dependent on tourism and has suffered the brunt of the lax approach to visitors – with curfews and strict lockdowns in the months since.
New York, April 2021
I flew from Bridgetown to New York on JetBlue, spent one night there, then to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific.
Hong Kong had banned anyone who had been in the UK for more than two hours in the past 21 days from entering, and although it had announced its intention to lift the ban, details were obscure. Canada had implemented a Caribbean flight ban. Returning home via the United States became my only option.
I wasn’t sure if I should quarantine myself when I arrived in New York – the information I found struck me as conflicting. By the time I confirmed my flights, I could see that I hadn’t done so.
A negative Covid test is required to enter, and the United States accepts rapid antigenic testing. A doctor came to my house to do it and the results were ready in less than 10 minutes.
I was asked to show this test when checking in at Grantley Adams International Airport – but not upon arrival at JFK.
Although New York City was in a bad spot around this time last year, things now felt as “normal” as they could get.
Hong Kong, April 2021
Hong Kong has complex arrivals requests.
All travelers must provide proof of a reservation at one of the city’s designated quarantine hotels for 14 or 21 days, depending on the risk group the Hong Kong government has classified in the country you are traveling from. . Shortly after I entered quarantine on May 5, the government announced it would lower the quarantine period to seven days for fully vaccinated arrivals from certain countries, which today only include Australia and New Zealand.
Some travelers – like me, who have traveled via the United States, which is currently considered a high-risk country – must also bring with them a negative Covid PCR test performed 72 hours before flight departure, as well as certification of the laboratory that performed the test. I did my Covid PCR test at a JFK clinic.
All travelers, whether or not they brought a negative Covid PCR test with them, should get tested upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport and wait for their results in a designated area. It was like school – albeit socially distant – with everyone assigned a desk and chair to sit on. The whole process – getting off the plane, meeting briefly with a health official to report my recent trips, getting tested, waiting for the results, and collecting my bags – took around four and a half hours. . After that, we were taken to our quarantine hotels in buses organized by the authorities.
Here there appears to be a “culpable until proven guilty” approach to quarantining travelers. Once we are in quarantine, we must have no contact with other human beings except those who come to test us on days seven, 12 and 19. (A rule change since I started quarantine means there is also a day three saliva tests.) I am staying in a standard 22 square meter room in a quarantine hotel which costs HK $ 10,500 (approx £ 956) for 21 days, and the rate includes three meals per day.
As I reflect on my experiences over the past six months and prepare to come out of my 40s, it’s hard not to feel conflicted. I have no plans to travel again until the strict Hong Kong rules are lifted, although seeing how other countries have managed to continue to manage tourism in the event of a pandemic makes me a little bitter. . Will we ever find the right balance?