A Qualicum Beach family travelled to the Philippines for what they hoped would be a relaxing three-week vacation.
Briana and Darin Barker, along with their two young children, had plans to visit three of the more than 7,000 islands. But it didn’t happen as planned after the COVID-19 situation turned into a pandemic.
The Barkers left Canada for Manila on March 9, before special travel advisories were issued.
“It was terrible timing because it was right where things were starting to develop but it didn’t seem like it was probably going to happen in the next three weeks,” Briana recalled. “We were careful in monitoring it. We thought that if things escalate we would come back home right away.”
They went to Camiguin Island first to join Briana’s parents, who had been in Indonesia for a month prior. Upon arrival on the island, Briana said they started to find the situation to be a bit odd as they were screened and had their temperatures checked.
“The locals were super nervous of us,” Briana recalled. “They were looking at us and watching us. Everyone seemed really on edge.”
They stayed in Camiguin for four days and then went on to travel to Bohol by ferry. Briana said they were planning to stay four days at Anda Beach but as soon as they docked, the were informed the island was being shut down to tourists. They were still allowed to enter but with some precautions.
“We were told to consider self-isolating. They basically suggested that we stop interacting with people,” said Briana. “All the guest houses were getting closed down at that point. There were military checks at each of the barangays (districts) because they’ve stopped people going in and out. That’s when we decided to book our flight back home to Canada earlier. We realized we were going to get stuck here if we don’t start making our way home.”
It was easier said than done, said Briana. They were already booked to fly back to Vancouver on March 31 via Philippine Airlines and they simply needed to change to an earlier date.
“I think I spent two days trying to get through to them,” said Briana. “I think it was on the fourth day that I finally got through and this was all trying to do it through Skype calls. I had people back home here trying to phone for us, too.”
The Barkers were initially relieved to get their flight moved forward to March 24 but their joy was shortlived as 12 hours later, the flight was cancelled.
“At that point we realized we had no way of getting home,” said Briana. “We have the two kids with us — a six- and a 10-year-old — and my parents who are in their 70s. We were concerned about them so we told them to return home with us.”
The problem got worse when the Philippines decided to shut down everything for four days, which Briana said she knew was likely to get extended as four days is too short a time to be an effective quarantine period.
All domestic flights were temporarily closed and even getting to an international airport was looking very problematic for the Barkers. As well, most international flights were getting cancelled. Briana said they started to look for international flights and were fortunate to get one for March 25 that would leave Cebu City, stop in Hong Kong, Taipei before heading to Vancouver.
“It cost $10,000,” said Briana. “When the airlines cancel your flight, they don’t refund you the money. So people were maxing out on their credit cards and not able to buy tickets to get out.”
Three hours after they got their flight booked, it was cancelled as Taipei decided not to longer allowing tourists to transit through.
“We immediately searched for a flight and the earliest one we could find was one that leaves Cebu to Hong Kong, then Vancouver. That was also on the 25th.”
Briana said at 2 a.m., en route to this flight, she decided to check her email and was informed by friends that Hong Kong was also shutting down its airport. They were lucky to still be able to proceed to locked-down Cebu which had an international airport, based on their cancelled flight. They felt they had better chances of getting a flight there.
They took a ferry to Cebu and upon arriving there, the Barkers were quarantined for three days in a hotel before they were allowed to leave the island. They were fortunate to get on a sleeper flight to Manila and also got on a flight to Vancouver that would leave Manila on March 29, with a 20-hour stopover in Seoul, South Korea.
Briana said they’re not easily dispirited and since they had the children with them, they had to remain calm and positive.
“We saw travellers who were hysterical about the situation they were in. They didn’t have options to get back home. We met travellers from the UK. The hotels were shutting down to tourists and they were nervous that if they don’t have an advance payment on a hotel, they might be displaced and put in a worse situation. It was really hard to see those people. I wondered how they’ve managed and how they’re doing.”
Briana and her family are safely back home and just completed their two-week quaratine. They’re thankful that none of them got sick.
“We invested in our health because we knew it was important for my parents and the kids to get back home,” said Briana. “In retrospect, we would have done things differently, but I think the world was surprised how quickly things changed.”