With borders closed, his travel visa on hold, and no eligibility for rescue flights, British expat Peter Robinson has been stranded on the island Siargao in the Philippines, voted the best island in the world by Conde Nast Traveler last year, since lockdown began. A Dubai resident of ten years, he is unentitled to repatriation by the British government – while the United Arab Emirates is limiting re-entry permits, making a return journey impossible for now. But, as he tells Hazel Plush, island quarantine has its perks…
If you’d told me in March that I’d soon be stuck on a never-ending holiday, I would’ve been over the moon – it sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? But being marooned on a tropical island hasn’t been without its frustrations. That said, there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be right now.
When I arrived in the Philippines on March 13, I was looking forward to eight glorious days on the beach – a little getaway with my friend Helen. We were wary of coronavirus, but the UAE government was only saying that people who went abroad might have to self-quarantine for two weeks afterwards, which didn’t seem too much of a hardship. We’d packed our laptops in case we had to quarantine away from home, just to be on the safe side.
From Manila, we took an internal flight to Siargao Island – keen to get stuck into happy hour cocktails and beautiful beaches. But, within 48 hours of landing, the doors closed behind us: all local flights were suspended, then the UAE announced it was shutting its borders and ceasing Emirates flights. We were stranded.
Our laid-back island quickly transformed into a strict quarantine zone: we were confined to the hotel, and every few days the Department of Health would come to take our temperatures. After 14 days, it was announced that there were no Covid-19 cases on Siargao at all: everybody was healthy, and they still are, but – very frustratingly – many of the restrictions have stayed.
For example, we’re not allowed to travel further than 3km from the hotel without a special pass, and they’re almost impossible to get. There are road checkpoints everywhere, patrolled by the police or the military. All restaurants have closed, the beaches are off-limits, there’s a 10pm curfew, and you have to stay two metres away from everyone. They’re national laws – but because we’re in a virus-free bubble, why should we stick to them?
So, we’ve snuck out a few times in the early hours, riding our scooter to the beaches on the north of the island. If you leave before 8am and get back in the evening, the checkpoints aren’t patrolled then. And a few of the restaurants have been letting people dine-in illegally – though we’re so sick of restaurant food that we’ve now moved into self-catering accommodation. Still, getting groceries is tricky: only a few small shops are open, so we’ve been shopping in the market.
Back in March, there were 300 tourists here, but now it’s down to around 150. Slowly, people have been leaving on repatriation flights – but Helen and I don’t qualify for a ticket. We’re British, but because we’re residents of the UAE the embassy flights aren’t open to us – and even if they were, where would we stay in the UK? We’d arrive with our suitcases full of holiday clothes, with nowhere to quarantine ourselves. It’s also £1,000 ($1,833) for a one-way ticket.
Meanwhile, the UAE government hasn’t offered us any repatriation flights, and residents now need a new permit before we can re-enter the country. They’re notoriously hard to get: we’ve applied four times now, and been rejected every time. We’re on a Facebook group for stranded UAE expats, and it has over 21,000 members – each with their own story to tell.
By not being a resident citizen of a country, you really have no place at all: I’ve always known it, but this saga has really nailed it home.
So, we’ve decided to make the most of our situation. I’m fortunate that I usually work remotely, and I’m used to joining video meetings across multiple time zones. But now I can jump in the pool between calls! I work from my room, swatting away the mosquitoes and sweating under a slow ceiling fan. The jungle is great, but it isn’t the easiest working environment.
I’ve even managed to find myself a gym – though really it’s just an outdoor yard with concrete weights and a wooden bench nailed to a palm tree.
Our accommodation is insanely cheap, around £445 per month. All of the hotels have really had to drop their rates, because they’re fighting for the few tourists that are left. Though of course, I’ve still got all my usual outgoings in Dubai: my apartment costs around £26,500 a year to rent, but it’s basically just been furniture storage for the last three months.
Emirates are resuming passenger flights on July 1, and we’ve booked tickets to Dubai on 6 July – that’ll be Day 116 of our holiday. But of course, there’s no guarantee we’ll get re-entry permits by then.
Internal flights aren’t running yet, though some local ferries are starting to operate. I’ve heard there’s one to Manila – it takes two days. It’ll be a slog, but we’ll just have to suck it up. After all, we’ve been so fortunate to live in this lockdown bubble. As long as I have that permit and that flight, I can handle anything else.