With global tourism in lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit travel agents especially hard.
From the moment the virus began to block the movement of people around the world, Australian travel agents began repatriating their clients, as well as rescheduling, rebooking, cancelling, amending and postponing their travel arrangements. Amid all of that, they've also been chasing refunds, credits and monies owed to their clients and suppliers.
It has been, without a doubt, the most challenging time in the industry's history. But crises often bring out the very best in people.
A new baby and a bucket-list tour to Everest base camp should have been the trip of a lifetime. But COVID-19 hit, throwing a young family's travel arrangements into chaos.
Then Denise Houlihan and the No Roads Expeditions team stepped in.
Prasad and Ru, clients of ATAS accredited No Roads Expeditions, had an exciting trip planned to introduce their new bub to family in Sri Lanka, and for Prasad to put a line through a significant item on his bucket list: A trek to Everest base camp in Nepal.
"I decided to do a solo side trip to the Everest Region of Nepal before re-joining the family in Sri Lanka and returning home to Australia," recalls Prasad.
After careful research, Prasad booked his Everest base camp tour with No Roads Expeditions.
Prasad en-route to Everest base camp with No Roads Expeditions. Credit: Prasad.
When asked about how she approached the complications and dramas that followed, Denise says matter-of-factly, "We were simply doing our job." That professional approach undoubtedly helped travel agents and their clients navigate this most challenging time in the industry's history.
Prasad arrived in Nepal on the 5th of March. Despite some poor weather, his tour started smoothly. And with the help of some amazing guides in heavy snow, Prasad was quickly checking things off his bucket list.
"I managed to climb Gokyo Ri—a 5,357 metre peak—and took in the astonishing view of four of the world's 8000 metre-plus mountains, including Everest, in the morning light," he recalls.
Arrival at Lukla to commence the Everest base camp trek; heading to Namche. Credit: Prasad.
Yet, even though his eyes were firmly focused on reaching Everest base camp, whenever he had an internet connection he kept one eye on the changing travel conditions as countries starting to close borders for air travel due to Covid-19.
"In the small village of Phortse, I checked the news and learned that Sri Lanka (my next destination) had closed its borders to all flights. After careful deliberation I decided to abandon my trip on day 15 and return to Kathmandu," says Prasad.
Incredible Himalayan views. Credit: Prasad.
Back in Melbourne, the 19th of March was a hectic day for Denise and the team at No Roads Expeditions. Having determined that 80 per cent of coronavirus cases in Australia were people who caught the virus overseas, or people who'd had direct contact with someone who had returned from overseas, the Australian government had just announced it was closing its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents. The government also strongly urged Australians "looking to return home to do so as soon as possible."
From Sri Lanka, Ru and their young family did just that. But things were a little more complicated for Prasad.
Back in Australia, travel agents around the country were fielding calls, emails and messages on their social platforms from travelling clients and those with imminent departures. The subject line of one such email caught Denise's eye: 'Urgent - I need to get out of Nepal'.
"I opened the email with trepidation. Prasad's message was brief. With borders closing, he was cutting his trek short and returning to Sydney. But he was still many hours trek away from the nearest airport at Lukla," recalls Denise.
Perched at 2,860 metres altitude, Lukla is a small village in north-eastern Nepal—a popular gateway to the Mount Everest region. The notoriously hair-raising airport here has a steeply sloping runway considered by many to be the most dangerous in the world.
Lukla's notorious Tenzing–Hillary Airport. Credit: Reinhard Kraasch via Wikimedia Commons.
With travel restrictions tightening, Denise had 24-hours to get him from the middle of nowhere in Nepal, to Kathmandu and en-route to Sydney.
As Prasad trekked towards Lukla, Denise got to work, looking at viable routes out and locking in flights. Almost hourly, one country after another would close its borders, flights were cancelling and, one by one, the itineraries Denise had held for Prasad were off the table. As Prasad described it later, it was "like a game of roulette where flights kept getting cancelled, booked out or priced out due to ever-changing travel restrictions."
Denise maintained contact with Prasad throughout his anxious trek, checking in every half hour to update him. Despite the influx of trekkers who had also cut their adventures short and headed for Lukla Airport, the No Roads team was able to reschedule Prasad's ticket to Kathmandu.
"We both breathed a sigh of relief when he touched down in Kathmandu. Being at an international airport made Australia seem much closer," says Denise.
Prasad landed in Kathmandu on the 19th to the news that Australia was recommending the immediate return of all residents holidaying overseas.
"He wasn't getting out of Nepal that night so I secured some accommodation in Kathmandu and he got some well-deserved rest," says Denise. She, then, got to work on plans to bring Prasad home.
"I can't tell you how many options we looked at," she says.
Ultimately, Denise's persistence paid off. With flights confirmed via Singapore on the 21st, it seemed Prasad was home and hosed. His flight out of Kathmandu, however, was delayed and he missed the connection out of Singapore.
"I took a deep breath, and prepared myself to do it all again," says Denise.
But in a stroke of good fortune, Qantas stepped up and agreed, free of charge, to take all the Singapore Airlines customers who had missed their connecting flight home.
Denise the moment he landed in Sydney. She relaxed for the first time since reading his 'Urgent - I need to get out of Nepal' email days prior.
A relaxed Denise after Prasad’s safe return to Australia. Credit: Denise Houlihan.
"The No Roads team was exceptional. They were with me the whole way home during a very stressful time. They put their customers' safety first, ensuring we were safely repatriated to Australia," says Prasad.
ATAS accredited travel professionals like the team at No Roads Expeditions deliver great value, professional advice and the support you need before, during and after your travels.
Only the very best travel agencies in Australia bear the ATAS insignia.
Attaining ATAS accreditation is a significant achievement for any Australian travel agent. ATAS accredited travel agents have successfully completed a rigorous application process, and must meet the strictest criteria. Furthermore, they must maintain these standards of professionalism to retain their ATAS accreditation.
ATAS accredited travel agents are required to comply with Australian Consumer Law and operate their business in accordance with the ATAS Charter and Code of Conduct.
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