SYDNEY – The flight attendant offered a glass of champagne. I checked my watch: 9:45 am “A little early for me,” I said. “Never mind,” she replied. “I’ll put it on hold for you.”
Late last year, when much of the world wondered if it was safe to step outside, my family embarked on an activity largely unthinkable on this side of the world: an international vacation.
According to a report released on Monday by the United Nations World Tourism Organization, two-thirds of the world’s travel destinations are wholly or partially closed to international tourism as the emergence of new coronavirus variants has led many countries to tighten restrictions.
Border closures are most common in the Asia-Pacific region. While Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas recently flew across the Pacific to Mexico, similar journeys are a relic of a Halcyon era when few of us knew the color scheme of our manager’s living room.
Australia closed its border a year ago and requires two-week stays in quarantine hotels for returning nationals. Officials recently extended a ban on the departure of Australian citizens to mid-June, warning that the border is unlikely to reopen fully this year.
Our family managed to get to the heart of some of the toughest travel rules in the world due to unusual circumstances: we have multiple citizenships, including New Zealand and Australian passports, and we visited a sick relative in New Zealand so we were granted an exception, to leave Australia. I had just finished a job and our school age kids were starting their summer vacation Down Under so we had time if our plans didn’t go ahead.
In addition to wearing masks, the flight experience was reminiscent of the glamor – and legroom – of the golden age of air travel. There were four flight attendants for only 11 passengers, sitting many rows apart.
It had been nine months since I’d been on a plane; It was a crowded 45 minute drive to Canberra, the Australian capital. This time I spent three hours at the window and marveled at the wonder of flying. And I drank the bubbly.
The only downside on arrival was the mandatory two weeks quarantine we passed in a touch of Netflix and imaginative activities from our two boys. One afternoon they designed a sports tournament around events that were noisy but no longer destroyed the hotel room. Rows of water bottles and a rubber ball turned into a bowling alley; A balloon made a passable replacement for a soccer ball.
On day 5, our 9-year-old said he had found an escape route: the main driveway was heavily guarded. But there was another gate at the end of an unmanned walkway, and the barrier – metal gates like those used at music festivals – could be opened easily. “Grandpa could meet us there in a limousine,” suggested our 6-year-old, adopting the prison break fantasy.
When we finally showed up, what greeted us was perhaps the strangest normal place on earth.
On our first night in Auckland we went to a disco in a local elementary school. A sea of children and parents danced under colored lights and mirror balls. The next day we attended a craft fair, lunch in a cafe, and a Christmas parade. Everything maskless.
Coronavirus? Which virus The only obvious sign of a global pandemic was the QR codes displayed in stores, which customers could use to log details so that health officials could follow up in the event of an outbreak.
New Zealand effectively beat the virus early last year with a strict lockdown. The little town we were in that summer had only recorded one case, and that was over a year ago. Rare outbreaks – like one at an Auckland high school last month and one in the city in August – are quickly cleared with partial bans and contact tracing to stay one step ahead of a community broadcast.
With no international travelers, New Zealand is a throwback to the 1950s. According to historians, ordinary New Zealanders at the time were suspicious of the “frivolous” tourism industry.
New Zealanders eschewed the jet boats, helicopter flights, and five-star hotels popular with overseas visitors, and flocked to remote natural areas this summer. Large families crowded into canvas tents and rustic holiday homes. The only nod to coronavirus on a recent camping trip: disinfectant and a cartoon illustrating hand hygiene outside of a public bathroom.
On the shores of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, once a popular Instagram spot, people put their selfie sticks aside and picnicked. On the same day, February 6, the United States recorded 115,650 coronavirus cases and 3,031 deaths.
“New Zealand is a dangerous place,” remarked 9-year-old Leo one day as he was putting together a list of adventures that made his summer sound like a scene from the 1986 film Stand By Me. Climb over volcanic rocks to find the best fishing spot, dive into rock pools (avoid tree roots), hike abandoned train tunnels, pedal down narrow paths with dangerous drops to the river, and meander down dusty roads to see what in the end was of them. The magic of spotting kiwi birds in the wild, their half-whistling, half-screaming calls echoing in the twilight.
Tourism faced a backlash before the pandemic. In New Zealand, “freedom campers” left traces of rubbish in rented vans. Cruise ships piled up. Tens of thousands of helicopter flights annually took visitors to glaciers that were once the realm of experienced climbers.
This summer, locals have reclaimed hikes like the Routeburn Trail, which winds through ancient forests that connect Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks. On a final day, we passed just a handful of people – including an old college friend, a kind of chance meeting possible in a sparsely populated country.
One day we asked the boys if they wanted to return to Australia, even though we practically had to – after leaving our Sydney apartment in a hurry with a freezer full of groceries, a worm farm and hungry guppies to feed.
“I would like to live on a boat. Buy something to eat, travel around and sometimes visit my friends,” thought Charlie, 6, after a day in the idyllic harbor of Opua in the far north of New Zealand.
But with school resuming, it was time to get back to reality. My husband had worked remotely over the summer, but people were slowly returning to their offices when Sydney went over a month without a community case of the virus. I started a new assignment at the Washington Post.
Days after we flown in under a rare, quarantine-free travel bubble, an alarm from health officials rang on my cell phone: monitoring for symptoms following a renewed outbreak in the Auckland community. The virus lives on.