Indian travellers have broadened their horizons as they take the long way back to Dubai while a ban on direct passenger flights to the UAE remains in place.
Anxious to get back to their jobs and reunite with loved ones, thousands of Indians spent 14-day layovers in destinations they may never have considered for a holiday, such as Ethiopia and Uzbekistan.
Passenger entry to the UAE from India was suspended in April due to a surge in Covid-19 cases in the South Asian country. Emirates Airline said on Monday that passenger flights would be suspended until at least July 21.
The ruling also applies to anyone who has been in India or transited through the country in the 14 days before arrival in UAE.
It led UAE residents stuck in India to search for suitable countries to spend the intervening two-week period before flying to the UAE.
They ask for help from fellow travellers and travel agents on WhatsApp and Facebook to locate cities open for travel, since flight bans and new quarantine rules are sometimes announced overnight.
Some UAE residents were in India for the last rites of a parent, others to assist elderly relatives ill with Covid-19.
Many had no choice but to travel home to be with family during a time of crisis.
Daily calls for support
Jyoti Malal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India, receives calls daily, not only from UAE residents, but also Indians who wish to travel to Canada and Australia, where similar restrictions exist.
“Countries are opening slowly but these bans will continue until countries co-ordinate and have unilateral policies to open borders,” she said.
“Otherwise people will keep looking for avenues and try different permutations to reach their destination, because they are worried about jobs.”
The UAE announced flight restrictions from India on April 25 to curb the spread of the Delta variant.
UAE citizens, residents with golden visas, those on diplomatic missions and business groups who charter flights are among those permitted on flights to the Emirates.
The National spoke to families who have recently returned to the UAE. For many, the enforced quarantine turned into a much-needed break.
Delhi to Dubai via Addis Ababa
Gagan Seth, a general manager with a facilities management company, and his wife flew to Mirzapur, north India before flight restrictions were announced to look after his parents, who had tested positive for Covid-19.
His parents, in their 70s, recovered and tested negative a day after the India flight ban was enforced.
“My parents live alone in a small town and I needed to take care of them,” Mr Seth said.
“You get jobs multiple times in life but your parents are once [irreplaceable]. It is our responsibility to look after them.
“When I left the UAE, I had not known flights would stop. But even had I known, I still would have gone to India.”
A suggestion from a friend who worked in the Africa region influenced Mr Seth’s decision to return via Ethiopia.
He flew to Addis Ababa with his wife Vaishali on June 6 via Doha.
The couple spent 14 hours in Qatar before boarding the flight to Ethiopia and returned to Dubai on June 21.
The tickets, including airfare within India, cost Dh6,160 per person and the hotel stay was about Dh5,300.
“My thought process was, 'if I stay in India I’m not productive'. My goal was to reach Dubai and it does not help if I’m stuck in a room in India,” Mr Seth, 47, said.
“In the end it was a wonderful experience. My wife and I explored the country, met new people. We wanted a break because we had gone through a rough time. I did spend more money but once we got back it’s all worth it.”
Kochi to Dubai via Tashkent
Ranjeet Nair was in Kochi, in southern Kerala state, since March to support his wife during a medical emergency.
He was anxious to get back to the Emirates to resume work and begin the renewal process for his UAE visa that expires soon.
“Financially, it was important to get back to work because I support my family in India,” said the 31-year-old, who works with a maintenance company.
“I was under a lot of tension, although my company said it was OK and I could wait for flights to restart.”
He flew from Kerala to Delhi, on to Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent on May 31 and reached Dubai on June 16 after a two-week layover.
The cost was Dh5,915 per person for a package that included flights, PCR tests and a hotel stay with meals.
There were about 60 others from India on a similar package.
Mr Nair and his wife hopped on a high-speed train to Samarkand, an ancient Silk Road city, and took guided tours around Tashkent.
It was the couple’s first holiday outside India, where they travel annually to visit family.
“I was a bit afraid because it was a new country,” he said.
“We feel safe going back to Kerala every year for our vacation. It was exciting to travel on a bullet train. This was the first time for us to visit any other country apart from India and UAE.”
Mr Nair and his wife Minnu Balachandran boarded a full flight to Dubai filled with travellers from Asia, most of whom had completed quarantine requirements in Uzbekistan.
Kerala to Dubai via Belgrade
It has been a challenging time for Fouad Ashraf, who lost his father to cancer.
He travelled with his family to Kochi, Kerala, on March 26.
“My dad’s condition deteriorated quickly and he passed away on April 15. It took a toll on the family,” said Mr Ashraf, 39, head of sales with a Dubai-based company.
“It was too soon to come back when Dubai announced the (flight) changes. My mom would have been alone.”
But when the flight ban was repeatedly extended, he decided to return to the UAE.
He travelled with his wife and nine-year-old daughter via Doha to Belgrade on May 30 and reached the UAE on June 14.
His decision was based on easier entry requirements compared to other countries.
“The main reason I opted for Serbia is it’s visa-free for Indians. You need a visa for Armenia and Uzbekistan,” he said.
“People said, why take the family, that it was risky. But I wanted my family with me in case we got stuck or the requirements changed. After all we had been through, I wanted my family close.”
He spent about Dh 22,000 for three people on air tickets, hotel and food. The prices have since climbed, with more Indians choosing Belgrade.
Mr Ashraf spent about Dh2,600 per ticket in late May but passengers are now paying double that amount.
He assists more than 200 “stranded Indians” in Serbia on Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram groups with feedback on travel. These are mainly travellers from India headed to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Europe and the US.
“The number of Indians in Serbia has gone up exponentially. Tour guides are now asking people – ‘you must be here for the two week quarantine.’ When we went, people just thought we were tourists,” he said.
The family explored the city and took day trips during their stay.
“There were lockdowns in India and we could not step out of the house. We were badly in need of a holiday,” he said.
Serbia currently has new quarantine and PCR requirements for travellers from “areas of concern” such as India.
Passengers must register at: https://www.e-zdravlje.gov.rs/
Armenia a preferred quarantine destination
Passengers opt for the country due to the ease of travel, price, range of options for stay and travel opportunities within.
After spending three months out of the UAE, Jeevan D’Mello responds with a “Hello from Dubai,” greeting to make it clear that he has returned.
“I was longing to say that for a long time,” said the real estate management consultant.
He travelled to Mangalore, southern India on April 2 to care for his ailing parents, in their 80s.
“I went to look after them. They had not been getting the medical attention they require due to the lockdown,” he said.
“I had planned to stay in India for three weeks but with the ban, all plans changed. There is a silver lining. It gave me more time with my parents and I managed to make sure they got vaccinated.”
After several flight cancellations and researching all options, Mr D’Mello, 54, left India for Yerevan, Armenia on June 19. His wife Cecilia joined him from Dubai for a short break.
He spent Dh15,000 for the flights and hotel stay.
“We made the best of the situation,” said Mr D'Mello, who returned to Dubai on July 5.
“I love art, history and architecture and we found all that there. If I had to go back for another three months I would do it for my parents, so I have zero regrets.”