Thousands of travelers stranded in foreign countries find getting home is almost impossible

Apr 4, 2020 | 19 comments

U.S. tourists wait to board a charter flight back home at the Guatemala City airport.

By Ellen Birkens

The United Nations estimates that as many as 200,000 travelers are stranded in countries around the world with many facing insurmountable obstacles to getting home. “The onset of travel restrictions aimed at the coronavirus was so sudden that many travelers were unable to make return plans before airports and borders closed,” according to a UN report.

Although tens-of-thousands have flown home on charter flights, an equal number appears to be stuck, often in small towns and villages without airports. Many of those communities are not allowing travel in or out, the UN says.

More than 24,000 U.S. citizens remain stuck overseas and need help to get home, but assistance may be increasingly hard to come by, authorities say.

Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, the U.S. State Department has helped more than 30,000 Americans stranded in 60-plus countries board 375 U.S.-bound flights, officials said.

While Washington will continue working to bring Americans home, Ian Brownlee, who leads the State Department’s repatriation task force, signaled for the first time Wednesday that the clock’s ticking for citizens to seek help. “Because of lockdowns on internal travel, many tourists are unable to get to airports and we have no way of getting them to there.”

Californians Ana Pautler and Mike Dobie are holed up in Kathmandu, Nepal, waiting to return home.

European countries appear to have been more successful in extracting their citizens from abroad, flying as many 100,000 home. In South America, hundreds of charter flights have flown out of Peru, Argentina, Ecuador and Chile.

“Countries like Germany, France and Belgium have been able to repatriate the vast majority of their citizens and they have worked with local governments to allow their citizens to reach airports,” the UN says.

According to the UN comments, the U.S. has been less successful in their repatriation efforts, leading to complaints from travelers of unanswered embassy and consulate phone calls and emails.

U.S. citizens are particularly struggling in Peru, where many are trapped in hostals and hotels as the country’s sudden and strict quarantines have prevented them from leaving.

“We’ve been attempting to get help from the embassy for three weeks and when we are able to get through they say they will get back to us,” says Alex Seimans of Virginia who is stuck in Cusco. “Most of the time, we can’t even get through.”

Some travelers have decided to hunker down in the countries where they are stranded. Lois Morris of London says she has made new friends in rural South Africa and plans to ride out the Covid-19 quarantine. “I really have no choice because of internal travel restrictions but I have been shown wonderful hospitality and don’t mind waiting a few weeks longer.”

U.S. national Josh Adamson plans to remain in Ecuador until the end of May, if necessary. “The consulate didn’t offer much help and I decided to stay in Cuenca (in southern Ecuador). The authorities here seem more competent than my own government, both in terms of helping its citizens and fighting the virus,” he said. He added: “Except for one city in Ecuador (Guayaquil), the country has done a good job of controlling the spread, the pizza is good and I feel safe.”

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