Travel During a Pandemic: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Here at South East Asia Backpacker we’ve been super busy over the past few weeks trying to advise people about the various travel restrictions caused by COVID-19. However, when the news was announced by WHO on 11th March 2020 that Coronavirus had become a global pandemic, an important question was raised:

Should I travel at all right now?

A thread in our Facebook group spun out of control as travellers debated the ethics of whether or not it was a backpacker’s duty to stop travelling altogether in order to reduce the spread of the virus.  Some travellers who had been in Southeast Asia since before the virus appeared clearly had no choice in the matter! Some of them are now deciding which country they prefer to be locked down in, should it come to that, and some are deciding whether or not they should simply go home before things get worse. Others are choosing to ignore the media panic continuing their backpacker’s life as normal and hoping it all blows over soon!

So what do you think?

A poll in our Facebook Group gave the following 3 options facing backpackers in Southeast Asia right now:
  1. Keep travelling but be cautious.
  2. Stay wherever you are right now in Southeast Asia.
  3. Go home.
So far, option 1 is winning by quite a lot, with option 2 in second place.* Let’s check out some opinions from people on the ground… *Of course, this is obviously a skewed poll as the most active people in the Facebook group are likely to be the ones who are still travelling.

Some travellers in Southeast Asia are undecided

Says Brooklyn – “I’m feeling ambivalent as I have only been here a week and have five more left. I saved up for a year and quit both jobs already to do this before I start a masters program in May so going home early just isn’t something I want to consider unless mandated. While I feel some guilt for scaring any locals, many areas also survive off the tourism and are desperate for business, so I think there are many perspectives to look at.” Says Phil – “I’m definitely struggling with the ethical, financial and health related choices between continuing my five-month trip around Asia or ending it and heading to family in the UK. I gave up my home in Canada, put all belongings in storage, saved for two years and took an unpaid sabbatical to make this trip happen. I don’t want to put local people here at risk as I travel through their countries so am following the protocols. Wearing a mask doesn’t help me, but does reassure local people and is culturally sensitive. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it into India so my trip will be cut short by 2 months.” Says Cameron – “I’m due to be in SE Asia until the end of May, and I’m struggling with the ethical choice over what to do. Do I stay, and try and avoid the seemingly-higher rise in the UK, or do I just head straight home when I have a chance and begin the social distancing protocols that are recommended? I’m enjoying myself so much here, but I don’t want to put myself or others at risk, so I’m a bit confused. Then again, if I head home, I have no job, no car, no place to live currently etc.”

Some are deciding to continue their travels

Says Jeff – “We sold everything and decided to travel the world with our two kids for a year. Don’t have a home to go back to at the moment so we will respectfully carry on. The knife is sharp on both edges: travellers do pose a risk of transmission but some of those SE Asia economies and families will be decimated by the lack of tourist dollars pouring in. As is often true there is rarely a black and white answer. It’s a shit situation and we’re praying for a quick resolution.” Says Courtney – “Is it ethical to travel right now? Honestly, if I could go home now and postpone, I probably would. But as someone who sold everything and left in October with the intent of not going back for at least a year… I have no home to go back to, no car, no job, and biggest of all – no US health insurance. It’s smarter for me to stay in Asia (I might hunker down somewhere for a while instead) vs. going home.”

Some are deciding to stay where they are

Says Brenda – “I am currently in Cambodia and was due to go to Nepal mid April, but Nepal have suspended visas on arrival. Arrived in Cambodia last night from Thailand and will remain in Cambodia for the next few weeks before making a decision on going home or whether to extend my visa. I feel safer here than in UK given recent UK government advice. I feel for the locals as it is clear businesses are suffering. It’s a tough time everywhere, but poorer countries will suffer more.” Says Maria – “I am on a gap year with my family. We arrived in Vietnam when there were just 16 people who had been infected. We’re with our kids and didn’t intend to move around too much and luckily landed in Da Nang… Every day we homeschool, get Banh Mi’s and drink coconut coffee and go to the beach. The locals we have met have always reminded us to be careful AND to wear a mask… and there has been a lot of debate among long-termers here whether this is necessary. I think the feeling is quite cold among locals since they have given up a lot to try to minimise the risks, yet it must suck to see so many foreigners come here and not follow what the government has recommended… to wear masks. I’m from the US but we are French residents… if I had to fly to any of our “home” countries, it would be France. I’m not sure if the infrastructure can handle it, but I trust their medical and social systems more than the US… but we have decided to just stay put for now.. We don’t want to fly. We socially distance ourselves, wear masks, wash hands and just go outside to walk or swim or sit. In the many years I have lived abroad, this is the first time that my friends from Asia, North America and Europe have been obsessed about the same topic. My two cents is to try to stay put as much as you can, or if you have to move try to go somewhere where you can do social distancing and where you feel comfortable in the off-chance you are forced to stay longer. Be Safe everyone.”

Others have gone home

Says Ben – “My girlfriend and I are halfway through our three month trip. Thailand and Cambodia were great but after entering Vietnam a week ago it felt very different. We’ve been checking the advice daily and have been very conscious of hand washing etc. However, overnight we had contact from family members in the UK suggesting that we should consider coming home early with potential border closures etc. Today multiple sport events have been cancelled and it looks like the Vietnam Grand Prix will be cancelled, which we had tickets to. Australia and Austria have advised against travel and to “take advantage of the return travel options whilst they are still available”. I suspect other European governments will follow suit in the coming days. Might be an overreaction but we have decided to just book a flight home to London today. We are on career breaks and to be honest were just finding the constant worry was starting to make the experience something it shouldn’t be. We were really wanting to go to Bali instead and ride it out there but IF things did go tits up and the UK government also advised to return, we didn’t want to be stuck somewhere. Absolutely devastated though, both of us.”

Some who had upcoming trips have cancelled

Says Karen – “It’s with great sadness that I finally made the decision to cancel my 1 month trip to Vietnam, starting on the 15th. It was a really hard decision to make cos I’d been planning it for ages & had booked 5 domestic flights & 5 hotels, researched activities/trips etc. However I decided not to go because 1) although I have a 30 day e-visa I’m scared of something changing while I’m flying there & not being allowed in 2) things seem to be closing down day by day so it might not be an enjoyable trip if options are limited & there’s hostility to foreigners c) I don’t want to be quarantined there! Especially not alone! 4) I have a compromised immune system so in the ‘susceptible’ group. If I ended up bring hospitalised there I might catch something else! Plus, I was worried reading about conditions in the ‘hospital’ the Brits are in (near Hanoi?) Good luck to those of you just about to go, and I’d love to see pics of you having a fantastic time there!” Says Elizabeth – “I decided to postpone my 5-month-Asia trip until things calm down. A few days ago, I still thought it could be quite an adventure: empty sights, few other tourists and a little thrill of excitement as its quite uncertain how the trip would have evolved. However, this isn’t the time to travel. For one: if the countries you were looking forward to most start close off their borders, there is definitely more risks than fun. But more importantly: we have a responsibility to flatten the curve and not to endanger the ones at risk to catch this just because we want to have some awesome travel experiences – and I mean the people at home as well as the people in the places we would have visited where infrastructure might be poor. And there is one bright side to it all: we can all save the world some CO2-emissions ? I had originally just booked the flight, but started to regret it quite quickly. When I finally decide to do the trip in future, I will take the train from Berlin to Vietnam – what an adventure! Until then, let’s just slow down a bit.” Says Adele – “I have a trip booked in a few weeks. I’m actually not worried about contracting the virus itself, I know I’m young and can easily fight it off, I just worry I will give it to elderly or immunosuppressed people! Also I’ve heard a lot of people saying that the atmosphere over there is terrible, so that’s put me off because I wanted to go and have the time of my life making as many friends as possible, but I’m not sure that’ll be possible in a world where self quarantine is becoming the norm! I’m going to delay it for even a month or so and see how things are looking then, fingers crossed this all blows over.” So what do you think? Here are some things to consider when making your decision…

Travel: Things to Consider during a Pandemic

1. Spreading the virus to vulnerable people as you travel

You may be a 20-something healthy traveller, but if you become infected with COVID-19 as you travel around Southeast Asia, you are likely to infect other people who may be old and vulnerable. Many travellers in our Facebook group felt that it was irresponsible to continue travelling during this time and that travellers should either stay put or go home in an attempt to protect others.  Says traveller Rebecca – “I think we need to consider that a lot of people living in Southeast Asian countries don’t have access to the same level of health care as the Western world. If it becomes a big problem for us, it is an even bigger problem for them!” As one local Vietnamese said – “I can’t understand why someone still keep their trip around the world now. If they are not scared about their health, it’s okay but please understand for the local people of other countries. Vietnam is a real example. Tour-guides are also victims. Leading tours is their life source so how can they refuse the tours? In Vietnam, they almost changed their job to other fields to wait for a re-birth of Tourism industry in the future. Our 39th positive patient is a tour-guide in the north of Vietnam after leading his group. It is my pleasure to know that Vietnam will always welcome everyone in the world but not now. Please save your money and your health to wait for an awesome trip in Vietnam in the near future. Let’s pray for our humans in this period! Thanks guys.”

2. Local opinion

Several people have talked about a ‘bad atmosphere’ in parts of Southeast Asia right now with locals being suspicious of foreign visitors who may be carrying the virus. Thailand’s deputy Prime Minister tweeted last night to warn his fellow Thais of those white foreigners who fled COVID-19 in their own country! He said “the foreigners don’t wear masks, never shower and wear dirty clothing.” (He must be talking about backpackers!). (Source.) Others have reported unwelcome receptions in some parts of Vietnam.

3. Travel Insurance

During a global health pandemic, your travel insurance may not be valid. Say World Nomads Travel Insurance – “It’s important to point out that fear of travel and/or fear of illness are not covered under our policies. Furthermore, there is a general exclusion under the majority of our policies for claims resulting from contagious disease, epidemic or pandemic, or to a government prohibition or regulation.” Read Safety Wing’s guidelines on COVID-19 here. See more FAQs related to COVID-19 and travel insurance here.

4. Supporting local businesses

There is an argument to say that travel during a time of crisis will support local businesses who will suffer greatly during this time. (We know because we’re one of them!). However, many local businesses are now locking down the doors, makings survival plans and putting health before money. Says Kischa from Ethnic Hill tribe Eco Trails in Chiang Mai – “I am a guesthouse and tour company owner in Thailand. I am not allowing people stay with us who are directly travelling from outbreak zones. I rely on tourism income for my business yet I am putting the health and safety of my community first.”

5. Overstaying visas

If cities and entire countries get locked down nobody really knows yet what will happen to travellers who overstay their visas! In this crazy situation, surely travellers will be let off with any overstay fines and penalties. However, this is uncertain right now.

In conclusion

Nobody knows what will happen as the true scope of the pandemic unfolds over the next few weeks and months. As countries across the world start to close their doors, it’s clear that the situation is like nothing we have ever seen before. I am afraid that we cannot give you a straight answer on whether or not you should travel right now. The decision is entirely up to you. We hope that this article has given you some things to think about and help you to realise that you are not alone.  If you are feeling alone or scared, please don’t hesitate to get in touch in our Facebook Group or contact us by email. Finally, we ask you to please continue browsing our website and sharing our articles to bring in much needed traffic at this time. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 our traffic has been hit massively and like many travel businesses, if the situation continues for a long time, South East Asia Backpacker is one that will struggle to survive. Thank you so much for your ongoing support and, with the tough spirit of the backpacker, we will get through this together!
Dave Noakes Bio Pic, with Nikki Scott
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker. At age 23, she left the UK on a solo backpacking trip and never returned. After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine about backpacking in Asia. The rest is history.

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