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I’m 38,002 feet up in the sky, flying over India, east of Hoshangbad, just south of Bhopal, five hours or so into my flight.
I am on Qatar Airways (QR) 817 bound for Doha, as always a brilliant inflight experience. Just like old times, back on the road again, the first leg of a marathon two and a half month stint around the Middle East, Europe and Asia. For the past ten months I’ve felt like my country New Zealand’s native bird, the Kiwi, unable to fly. Now it’s time to soar.
Why so long away from home? Simple. First a whole lot of professional and personal obligations; second, the need to undergo seven days hotel quarantine each time I return to Hong Kong makes coming back between trips problematic and expensive.
In fact it’s not quite like old times. International travel is a very different proposition than in pre-pandemic days. At least it is when you’re flying out of Hong Kong International Airport, livelier than when I last departed here 11 months ago but only marginally.
It’s sobering, in fact sad, to see this magnificent airport reduced to its current state. Most of the stores and restaurants remain closed – though, encouragingly, several more are open than during my last trip, when you half expected tumbleweed to blow down the terminal.
Passenger traffic rose +61% year-on-year in March to 94,000. A strong increase, right? Well, yes, but that represents a miniscule 1.47% of pre-pandemic March 2019 levels, when the airport served 6.4 million passengers.
That is a hell of a fall. Strict post-arrivals quarantine measures and inbound travel restrictions have effectively killed off tourism in Hong Kong since early in the pandemic and prompted a more recent mass exodus of ex-pats and, alas, businesses.
As I’ve written in previous posts, I accept that reality but business-wise I can no longer simply wait it out for things to return to normal, hence this extended trip.
COVID-related protocols also make travel – at least from certain airports and to certain destinations – a very different experience from 2019. I need a PCR test to enter Qatar though, impressively, they are now offered on site at Hong Kong International Airport (by Prenetics) with rapid (precisely 54 minutes in my case) results.
To enter Doha, you need to go through an extensive (though very easily navigated) registration process on a government website called Ehteraz, where you log your documents including passport, PCR test, vaccination records and hotel reservation. And, unlike other parts of the world (thankfully), it’s a fully masked inflight experience the whole way with Qatar Airways (though not, when sipping on a very good Louis Latour Montrachet, as I felt obliged to do in the interests of research).
My flight was packed across all classes, the Qatar Airways check-in zone having been a bustlingly stark contrast to the eerie emptiness of much of the airport. What a job this airline has done throughout the pandemic.
When – and I say when rather than if – this is all over and people look back at those companies that have excelled during the crisis, Qatar Airways will surely be at the top of the tree. As one of my ex-pat friends noted recently after another airline cancelled her flight back to Hong Kong, “Thank goodness for Qatar Airways, they always keep flying.”
And so, indeed, will I. It’s been a long time since I last boarded an aircraft – Incheon to Hong Kong in July 2021 – and I feel a mixture of unease and excitement about what lies ahead.
Unease mainly due to the fear of catching COVID while away from home and because of all the protocols and tests I will have to go through along the way. But as I gaze at the inflight map and see all the place names come up in front of me – Karumbha Island, the Gulf of Kutch, Mandvi, Naliya – the wonder of travel floods back to me and the excitement kicks in. And excitement beats unease with a knockout blow.