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Borders closing, travelers stranded, and small businesses haemorrhaging money – that’s how those in the travel industry will remember the period two years ago, when the world closed down in a matter of days.
On March 11, 2020, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Authority, and countries around the world were beginning to figure out emergency border policies in a bid to protect their citizens.
In travel, that meant vacationers scrambling to get home, and communities torn between needing visitors, and fearing what they might bring.
The two weeks around March 11 dealt a blow to the travel world, the likes of which had never been seen before. It’s one that many small businesses and employees have yet to recover from.
Here nine travel experts share their memories of March 2020 – from the tour guide stranded in Italy, to the hotelier in Dominica, who was forced to close the hotel she’d just reopened after hurricane devastation.
Avril Coipel had high hopes for 2020 – as did the inhabitants of the villages in southeast Dominica near Rosalie Bay, the hotel which she managed.
The award-winning eco resort had been destroyed in 2017 by Hurricane Maria. With virtually all the staff drawn from the surrounding area, it was a tragedy for the local communities, as well as for the hotel.
A grand reopening had been planned for February 2020, and things were looking good – the hotel’s great reputation meant the bookings were rolling in. More importantly, says Coipel, “the local communities were looking forward to the opening of the resort – we hired staff who hadn’t been able to get a steady job since 2017.”
In December, just weeks from their reopening ceremony, she saw the news about a virus taking hold in China. “It sounded far away,” she says. “When it reached Italy it still sounded far away. When we started hearing it was in the US, we said, OK, that’s a little close – and then suddenly it was in the Caribbean.”
The pandemic would have devastating consequences for Coipel and her coworkers. On February 15, they’d had a grand reopening ceremony, attended by government ministers, while bookings stacked up. It looked like 2020 would be as successful as the good old days had been.
But soon after their opening, they were watching covid outbreaks on cruise ships in the news. By early March, the cancellations were rolling in as they watched footage of empty streets in Europe – “it was like something you read about in novels,” says Coipel.
“By the time it reached mid March, we’d had all our bookings canceled, all the way down to December,” she says. “By the time we closed, we didn’t have any guests. All the cards fell down.”
Rosalie Bay closed on March 23, as Dominica went into lockdown just after. Coipel had to lay off nearly all her staff, slashing a team of 51 to a skeleton crew of just four to handle cancellations, plus security and landscaping to stop the forest taking over the resort.
It was devastating for the local community, as well as for Coipel personally.
“We were full of hope, full of promise, looking forward to the future,” she says.
“It was a very sad time – you close, stay closed for two years, finally get in a position to reopen – and six weeks later you have to shut down again. Our staff is 95% local, the resort is locally owned – it has a high impact on the surrounding communities.”
As for Coipel herself, she found it “extremely depressing.”
“When you’re very confident in what you’re doing and finally find yourself in a position where you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t like it,” she says.
“But the pandemic was new, bigger countries were really struggling – we didn’t know if the same thing would happen to us in Dominica. As a small island, there was concern that our health infrastructure would be overwhelmed.
“We had to deal not just with the reality of closing the resort and laying off staff, but also rising panic.”
She kept in close contact with other hotels on the island – they advised each other, and “gave each other that mental encouragement that all of us needed.”
Things would get better. The hotel reopened in July 2020 for domestic travel, and a month later for international visitors. The staff are back.
“2021 started looking up, and we think 2022 will be better,” says Coipel.
The flight attendant
It was mid-March 2020 when, taking stock while in North Carolina between flights, Dana Schaefer noticed her world had changed.
“I remember going through Charlotte airport and it was like a scary movie,” says the flight attendant.
“It was just so empty, everything was closed – it was just flight crews walking through, no passengers.”
Based out of Miami, Schaefer was working for a major airline – which, by that point, was telling crew to bring their own food with them on trips.
“Even on layovers people were getting stuck because we were flying with no passengers, and once restaurants and even hotel restaurants started closing, we didn’t want to be without food,” she says.
By then, Covid-19 had already been declared a pandemic. As someone mainly flying within the US, Schaefer says the realization of what was happening was “pretty gradual, and then, boom – flights were canceled and there were no people in the airports.”
As a relative newbie – Schaefer had started flying in 2018 – she was unsure what to expect, but her more experienced coworkers could see the writing on the wall, comparing it to the aftermath of 9/11 – and saying this was worse.
“They were trying to make sure I had a gameplan, and wasn’t thinking, it’s no big deal,” she says. In October 2020, she would be furloughed for eight months.
Schaefer remembers those days around March 11 as “very scary.” Suddenly her catering trolley was laden with masks and gloves.
“Once people found out how contagious it was, I was scared to continue flying and risk exposing my family,” she says.
“It was a big mystery [how it spread] and I remember being scared to touch anything on the plane. It felt like a waiting game – even if I do my best to be protected, am I going to get it?”
It was her sociable personality that had encouraged Schaefer to be a flight attendant – formerly in customer service, she made the leap because “you get to talk to so many different people and I love that.” But all that swiftly changed. “My job went from being hands on to you really don’t do anything,” she says.
“It was honestly kind of depressing. We were just walking through and picking up trash, not really interacting with anyone. And then you’d get to your layover and weren’t allowed to go out or do anything.”
Now she’s back in the air in what she calls “weird times,” where passenger aggression is at an all time high. “I just hope it gets back to normal,” she says.
The tour guide
Francesca Folmi had 51 guests booked on her March 2020 tour of Italy. The guide for youth tour operator Contiki was expecting guests from as far away as New Zealand and the US for her March 8 coach tour, starting in Rome.
By the time they started, Italy was the global center of the pandemic. Just 14 people turned up.
“I started the welcome meeting saying, ‘OK, let’s get the c-word out of the way, let’s let out all our fears and frustrations, then that’ll be it and we can put it behind us,’” she says.
“It’s unbelievable now but I really thought it was going to be OK. There weren’t restrictions locally, no suppliers had pulled out, the itinerary was due to go ahead.”
That night, walking to dinner, the group was confronted by a woman wearing a mask, shouting at them to spread out from each other.
“You could see the panic on her face – she was the first person in Italy on whom I saw the fear of the virus,” says Folmi, from Guernsey, UK.
The next morning, they drove south for a tour of Pompeii, continuing to Naples. “Things were going at warp speed,” says Folmi – while there’d been no restrictions in Rome, by the time they arrived in Naples the hotel was asking them to stay six feet apart and to avoid common areas.
They were booked for dinner with entertainment; they got dinner. Not that it mattered.
“By the end they were getting on famously, they were super excited on the coach home,” says Folmi.
“I put music on, and was thinking, finally, they’re going to relax a bit more.
“And then my phone pinged with a news alert: Italy was going into lockdown, effective immediately.
“They were still singing Miley Cyrus.”
As they got to the hotel, Folmi informed her group that the tour was over and she was going to help them get home. By the next morning, Contiki had offered all participants a refund, plus promised a discount for future trips.
“It felt awful,” says Folmi. “They’d made these massive journeys – Australia, Canada, America – and I was going to send them home 48 hours into their trip.”
Train travel was already restricted, but their coach was able to take them back to Rome. There, Folmi coordinated her charges’ flights home from a hotel paid for by Contiki. International flights were being canceled across the board, and while most guests got out within 24 hours, one Australian woman had to wait five days. By then, Folmi’s own flight had been canceled three times. They eventually left together.
Back in Guernsey, Folmi had to quarantine for two weeks as Italy was classed as a “hot zone.” Then, “work evaporated.” She finally made it back to guiding in January 2022.
“It made my heart swell,” she says about her return to Pompeii. “I felt, yeah, we’re back.”
The airline executive
As the interim chief commercial officer at Norwegian Airlines, Marty St. George was commuting weekly between New York and Oslo in early 2020. Little did he know his life was about to be turned upside down.
Every Thursday, he would fly from Oslo to London to work with the UK team, and on March 11, he took his flight as usual.
“I just had an overnight bag – I’d left every bit of clothing, my computer, books, everything in my apartment in Oslo,” he says.
That night, as the WHO declared a pandemic, then-President Donald Trump closed the US borders to arrivals from Europe. St. George’s daughter called him in the middle of the night to tell him to come home – so on March 12, instead of returning to Oslo, he flew from London to Boston.
“I went to dinner – the restaurant was empty. Friday morning I flew to New York, thinking I should stop at the grocery store. I walked into Whole Foods to find the shelves empty, people yelling. I’d only left five days earlier and the place had collapsed.”
St. George – who’s now based in Chile as chief commercial officer of LATAM – said they were noticing a downturn of bookings from late January 2020.
“We started thinking, huh, something’s going on, but we weren’t sure what the cause was,” he says.
“I remember hearing about it in China in January, and dismissing it. We didn’t know what would happen in Europe.
“I thought it’d be a month and we’d get over it. I went through demand bumps in both Gulf Wars, after 9/11 and after the recession. I predicted another bump, not a tsunami.”
Lunch with a friend from Hong Kong in February made him think differently. And by the last week of February, he says, “We knew something bad was happening” in aviation.
Airlines tend to use advance bookings as working capital – in other words, to buy fuel. Without new bookings coming in but flights still running, the airlines were “bleeding cash,” he says.
On March 8, much of northern Italy was placed into lockdown. Norwegian flew to Milan “so we had problems right off the bat,” he says.
As for his own situation, when he rushed back to the US, he assumed he’d be back in Oslo soon. “At that point we all thought if we isolated for four weeks, it’d go away,” he says.
Of course, it didn’t. Finally, fed up of paying rent on an apartment he wasn’t using, St. George asked his coworkers in Oslo to pack up his belongings and ship them to him in the US. He received them in May.
The B&B owner
Veronica Grechi’s dream had always been to share her native Florence with visitors.
Having trained as a hotelier and managed a B&B in the Italian countryside, she returned to her city in 2017 when, alongside her mother and aunt, she transformed her grandparents’ former apartment into a four-room luxury B&B, Velona’s Jungle.
It did well – so well, in fact, that in 2019 they bought the apartment below, and planned to open six new rooms. 2020 was going to be Grechi’s year – not only was she expanding the B&B, but she was having her first child in March. Also, this was the first year that, by January, she was fully booked for the year ahead. “I was thrilled,” she says.
And then stories about a virus starting surfacing.
“When I heard the news, initially I thought there must be a mistake, that they were exaggerating,” she says. “I didn’t understand, and I didn’t want to.”
It soon became a “nightmare.”
On March 9, she gave birth to her son, Elia, as Italy went into lockdown. Two days later – the day Covid-19 was declared a pandemic – Grechi, still in hospital, received a call from her cousin, a doctor. She’d called in on their grandmother, who was unwell – and had called her an ambulance.
“She told me, ‘Look, nonna had her lungs full,’” says Grechi. “That was when I realized that it was true – so true that it had already arrived in my home.”
In the meantime, Grechi’s parents had also been complaining of a fever. “On the 13th, the ambulance took them away too,” she says.
Two days later, her grandmother died, while her parents’ conditioned worsened. Grechi was at home by now with her newborn, all thoughts of the B&B forgotten.
“We were destroyed,” she says of her family, who couldn’t even hold a funeral. “But all of Italy was feeling destroyed in those weeks.
“At a certain point, I thought, OK, I’ll never work again but work doesn’t matter anymore. The important thing is that people survive.”
Her coworker, Giulia, became the “cancellation manager for nearly a year – we had no enquiries, only cancellations.” That entire year of proud pre-bookings either had to be refunded or turned into vouchers. Even now, in 2022, she has $11,000 worth of vouchers that still need to be redeemed.
Not that she was bothered about the B&B in March 2020, when both her parents were in ICU.
“One day the hospital called and said, prepare yourself because we have to intubate them. I thought they would both die. I called my brother, we said, at least they had a good life. After an hour they called back and said they were responding to oxygen helmets so wouldn’t need intubation.”
Her parents spent two months in hospital. It was June when Grechi was able to see them again.
“They saw Elia for the first time,” she says. “We couldn’t meet but I took him to their window and showed him to them.”
Velona’s Jungle tentatively reopened in July 2020, although visitors only started returning the following year. Her new rooms finally opened in fall 2021, and although business isn’t what it was, Grechi hopes that 2022 will be better.
The tour operator
Laura Rendell-Dunn is business development manager and PR at Journey Latin America, a specialist tour operator. But when the pandemic hit, it was all hands on deck, and she found herself personally evacuating customers back home before borders closed.
Although she was seeing the news about the virus in Europe in February, she assumed it wouldn’t affect business.
“We were monitoring the situation but weren’t too concerned as it hadn’t reached South America,” she says.
Then March arrived, and their business effectively collapsed.
“First Argentina announced it was going to close its borders, and there was a domino effect – one country after another said they would close their borders in 48 or 72 hours. It almost all happened in two days, with no warning – we had to get people home.”
The company had just under 50 people in Latin America at the time – many of whom were in remote areas, which caused a “major crisis” contacting them. The company used their contacts on the ground to liaise with the hotels and guides their clients were using.
“For a lot of them, it was heartbreaking – and shocking at first,” says Rendell-Dunn, who had to call a couple who’d flown into Patagonia the day before, oblivious to what was going on. She tracked down the guide who was taking them to a glacier, and told them they had to return home immediately.
“It was one of the hardest phone calls because they’d spent vast amounts of money – it was a dream trip,” she says.
“The majority [of our clients] were in the wilderness, so hearing about the situation was a shock. We’d have to repeat ourselves three or four times, going over the advice, what we could do, and what we recommended.”
With flights filling up quickly, it was a “scramble to leave,” she says – “Airlines were starting to slow down their operations, and flights were full.” The company shelled out on new tickets for their clients to guarantee a space on the plane. “We had to move so quickly so we forked out a lot of money, knowing we could recoup it from the airline – although that was another story,” she says.
Some didn’t want to leave. Rendell-Dunn called one traveler in Chile who called it “ridiculous.”
“I said, ‘If you don’t leave within 72 hours you’ll have to spend two weeks in the same location. Are you really going to stay for two weeks in your hotel in San Pedro?’”
Of course, South American borders were closed for far more than two weeks – Argentina, for starters, reopened in November 2021.
“None of us could have estimated what would happen,” says Rendell-Dunn. “We all thought it’d blow over in a couple of weeks.”
While many travelers got stuck South America when the borders closed, JLA extricated all their clients except for a group in Guatemala – they ended up being repatriated by the UK government to Mexico, where the tour operator flew them home.
For their suppliers on the ground, the situation was devastating – “absolutely horrific,” she says. The business did several charity events to support their local coworkers.
Rendell-Dunn, meanwhile, was furloughed in April 2020 – but returned in September. For 2022, finally, things are picking up.
When Nicole Seregni and Michael Schmid left India for a working holiday in the Seychelles on March 14, they thought they’d be gone just over a week.
“We left with a small carry-on in flipflops saying, ‘See you in 10 days,’” says Seregni.
The couple, who run social enterprise Learn for Life from their base in Varanasi, were off to meet the chairwoman of their Austrian fundraiser, “for meetings and a holiday.”
“The day before we went, they were talking about maybe closing the borders in India, so we knew we were leaving with the possibility of not coming back, but when you’ve never experienced something you think it’s impossible,” says Seregni.
Of course, it wasn’t. After a few days, it was clear they couldn’t return.
Seregni and Schmid turned to Europe – Italian and German respectively, they already split their time between India, Italy, Germany and Bosnia. But as things were in a bad state there – with Lombardy, where Seregni’s mother is, being the worst hit – they decided it’d be safer to wait a week in the Seychelles.
“Just as we were understanding what was happening, they closed the airport in the Seychelles,” she says.
Of course, there are worse places to be stranded than an island paradise – not least because they were staying with their Austrian coworker in her seaside villa.
“I can’t say it was a horrible time because we were in this amazing villa, swimming every day, so from one perspective it was the best place to be,” says Seregni.
“There were very few cases on Seychelles at that time, and we were completely alone in the house.
“But it was horrible for other reasons.”
Her mother was alone in Milan, where cases were out of control, and Seregni was anxious to be with her. The situation was bad in India, too. “We were feeling guilty being in paradise when the situation was tragic in our [usual] places,” she says.
After six weeks, their Austrian coworker got a repatriation flight out of the Seychelles, but Schmid and Seregni were not allowed onboard.
They stayed on in the home, and on July 14, got spaces on a cargo flight going to Milan.
There was one positive outcome of their being stranded in paradise, however. “We were in a situation where we could focus,” says Seregni. They started fundraising immediately for their project in India: “In three weeks we raised a lot of money, and started distributing food parcels and emergency kits in March, so we were pretty fast responding,” she says.
“If we’d been in the middle of the cyclone, we’d have been unable to react so fast and so well.”
The cultural capital
For Keith Kissane, 2020 was going to be the best possible year.
Galway – the Irish city where he’d spent all his life – had been named European Capital of Culture.
Not only was his beloved hometown going to step onto the world stage, but he and his family were set to make it a profitable one. In 2014, they’d opened hostel The Nest. It had been a success – so much so that in the run-up to Capital of Culture, they’d invested in some city center apartments to run alongside the hostel.
The last five were timed perfectly to open in January 2020.
“I was very content. Our ducks were in a row, we had a quality product and we were going to make money,” he says.
Just one thing – they’d used all their cashflow on those last apartments, anticipating that they’d start earning it back as soon as Capital of Culture got going. Indeed, they opened as scheduled in January, with “lots of bookings” on the horizon.
“Things were picking up nicely, and then – bam,” says Kissane.
That first weekend of March 2020, he was away with friends, one of whom confessed he’d started stocking up on food. Until then, “We weren’t taking it seriously at all,” he says. He remembers being in a wholesaler a little earlier, where another customer was wearing a mask.
“The guy next to me nudged me and we laughed,” he says. “When I think back to it…” he trails off.
Chastened by his friend’s response, Kissane chatted to his wife, and they pulled their oldest son, who has special needs, out of school. They also decided to close the hostel – over a week before the government locked down businesses across Ireland.
“My operations manager said we were crazy, that we’d close for a week – I said no, I don’t think so. I said that whoever was staying in the hostel, we had to sit them down right now and get them out and home – I was locking the door on March 16. I wasn’t going to wait for the government to lock down.”
While the apartments remained open, The Nest was closed until June 29. Kissane’s operations manager moved in to take care of the building, while they concentrated on rescuing the finances.
“We offered a non-refundable lower rate – so we’d been given the money and the bookings were in place. But the year before, the money we had in the account I’d spent on the [apartment] renovations.
“By the time we shut down I had no money coming in.”
They also had to find $22,000 to repay to clients demanding refunds. Luckily, their bank stepped in. “But it was extremely stressful,” he says. As was life. “The first emotion was fear, especially because of our eldest child,” he says.
“We didn’t leave the house for three weeks, we were scared to open the front door. You didn’t know how airborne it was. The trash would be collected, I’d go out in gloves and a mask and spray the bins down.”
As Ireland shuffled towards reopening, they nixed the buffet breakfast, closed the communal kitchen and bought fridges for every room. What was harder was cutting back on the famous Irish welcome.
“We were very face to face with customers, and chatty, and that was all gone – it became, ‘There’s the key, nice to see you,’” he says.
Things are improving now, he says – but they’ve no plans to bring back the non-refundable rates. Once bitten, twice shy.
The travel insurer
Tim Riley had always had a policy of answering any client email on the same day. His company, True Traveller, handles both claims and sales inhouse, used to get around 30 customers needing help every day.
By mid-March 2020, they were “getting into the hundreds” – and he had to double that much-vaunted 24-hour response time.
Travel insurers, perhaps more than others, watched the world shut down in real time, since they have long received live updates from countries issuing travel advisories.
“Today, for example, we’ve had 15 emails, but back then it was 100 a day, saying borders were closed, flights were stopped, and so on – it was a disaster,” says Riley. Just as they were processing the news from one country, another closure would drop into their inbox. “One day there were 300 advisories,” he says.
True Traveller noticed a spike of insurance sales in February and early March, although Riley had already been following the news from Asia and then Italy. It was on March 16, the day before the UK locked down, that he says his sector “went into meltdown,” with many of their long-term travel clients desperate to get back.
“We only have a team of six, and we were dealing with 300 cases a day,” he says. “We didn’t sleep, we worked 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.”
On the plus side, he says, there weren’t many cases of people needing assistance – “everyone took more care, because the last place anybody wanted to be was in hospital. Assistance cases dropped to pretty much zip.”
Some of their clients were stranded in Peru when the borders were closed – only the respective governments and the military could extricate them. Others just needed advice on how to reclaim money from airlines.
It was late May when things calmed down. But although Riley said that the crisis was “not like anything we’d ever faced before,” he has a sobering takeaway. “This is what [travel insurance] was designed for. [Underwriters] will make up for it in the next few years.”