Thousands of stranded expatriates spread across 16 countries, hoping they would be able to return to their homes and jobs in the UAE, rushed to buy tickets at unprecedentedly higher rates whenever travel agencies opened booking, albeit briefly. Stranded in their home countries for three months — six in the case of residents stuck in South Africa — these expatriates have been away from their jobs and families, and in some cases inches away from visa expiry. Inbound travellers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Indonesia, Liberia, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Uganda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zambia, are not allowed to enter the UAE until they spend 14 days quarantining in a third nation.
The UAE introduced the travel restrictions to control the spread of the newer variants of Covid-19. Since then, the stranded expats have left no stone unturned in their attempts to return to the UAE. While some have returned on charter flights by spending a whopping Dh25,000 per ticket, some quarantined themselves for 15 days in places as far as Armenia, Uzbekistan, Serbia, Ethiopia and Qatar. Such quarantine packages cost an average of Dh9,000 per passenger. The rest live in an agonising limbo. Expats stuck in India, South Africa and Nigeria were provided a faint glimmer of hope on June 19 when the Dubai Supreme Committee of Crisis and Disaster Management announced relaxations for fully-vaccinated passengers starting June 23. Major carriers have since been deferring final travel dates and extending inbound passenger suspensions on a routine basis. New dates signalling the end of travel suspensions are now announced by airlines more frequent than weekly, sending the stranded passengers on an emotional roller-coaster.
However, the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) has firmly maintained that the inbound travel suspension will remain in place until further notice. “The UAE government is closely monitoring the situation and will provide further updates and instructions as necessary,” said the GCAA recently. While a lack of clarity on when the suspension will end leaves the stranded residents frustrated, we should not forget that the world is navigating unprecedented times. While aggressive vaccine campaigns and Covid protocols bring about a lull in infections in some parts of the world, deadlier and more contagious variants of the pathogen rear their ugly heads in other countries. The pandemic has turned into a never-ending Whac-A-Mole game. Thousands of passengers are still glued to updates shared by airlines on social media, booking and re-booking flight tickets every time a new travel date is announced. Travel agents have highly recommended those wishing to travel must await a formal announcement from either the GCAA or the National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority on the end date before booking their tickets, instead of wasting precious time and money and losing peace of mind.