Tourists’ frenzied flight as airports shutdown

Tanila De Silva, Hasindu Saranguhewage and Elias Harrak wait for a flight home in Manila''s international airport.

By Cam Lucadou-Wells

All seemed well early into Tanila De Silva’s birthday trip with a mate and a cousin to a remote tropical island in the Philippines.

Travel advisories were all clear, there were less than a handful of coronavirus cases in the country as the Endeavour Hills banker arrived on Boracay for bars, palm-tree laced beaches, reefs and waterfalls on 11 March.

Then three days in, an airport lockdown was announced for within 36 hours on the Philippines’ main island, Luzon.

As a Covid-19-related precaution, domestic and international flights would close.

Mr De Silva and companions Hasindu Saranguhewage and Elias Harrak snapped into work mode, working like a “well-oiled machine” in a scramble to book flights out for up to 500 international tourists.

A 12-hour ferry to the main island was out of the question. If not allowed to dock, the travelers would be well and truly stranded.

“It was getting quite emotional,” Mr De Silva said. “It was the last thing I wanted to do while on holiday.

“We were quite safe but there were rumours of a virus on the island. We just stayed together and stayed safe in the hotel.”

They bombarded the Philippines Department of Tourism, media and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with messages for help – even starting an online petition.

DFAT at that stage advised him to liaise with local authorities. “They said there’s much they could do because they were lacking information.”

He rang an emergency travelers hotline based in Sydney, who were “lovely but didn’t have any information”.

His father Ajith De Silva found an ally in Jason Wood, the La Trobe MP and Assistant Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs.

Mr Wood and his office got in touch with the stranded travelers on a daily basis, offering reassurance, checking on their wellbeing as the DFAT worked behind the scenes.

“It was good to have someone that cared,” Mr De Silva said.

Then a breakthrough. They were offered a domestic flight from the island to the capital city Manila, then a plane out to Melbourne via Hong Kong.

In the chaos, they missed two flights either from delays or changed flight times. They ended up buying tickets for four flights out as a result – without refunds.

At Manila airport, the three huddled in masks waiting 24 hours for their connecting flight home.

Mr Wood said he gave “absolute priority” to assisting his constituents in such predicaments.

“Obviously they were very stressed and we did our absolute best to keep them calm and assist them during this very difficult situation.

“There are other people that are in a similar situation in various parts of the world and the government through the department of foreign affairs is doing everything it can to assist them.”

Now in Australia and in 14-days of self-isolation, Mr De Silva advises other stranded travelers to “trust the process”.

“We just did everything we could to contact authorities, like DFAT, the tourism boards, MPs, anyone.”


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