Armenia has turned into a sought-after quarantine centre for hundreds of Indian travellers serving Covid-19 regulations before they are cleared to enter the UAE.
Indians trying to get back to their jobs, businesses and family are taking long routes back to the Emirates.
They spend two weeks quarantine in countries from where travel to the UAE is considered safe during movement restrictions to control the spread of Covid-19 variants.
The UAE suspended incoming flights for most travellers from India on April 25, and the ban is likely to be in place until the end of the month.
The only passengers permitted are diplomats, UAE citizens and golden visa holders, and people on business jets.
Travellers say Armenia – one of the most affordable places within a three-hour flight of Dubai and Abu Dhabi – replaced the Maldives as a popular quarantine spot after the resort islands banned the entry of passengers from India last month.
People spend a little over Dh4,000 on flights, accommodation and food in Armenia.
They post information on Facebook and WhatsApp groups to help with information on the routes they took.
The past few months were an emotional upheaval for Sujay Sarigommula, 35. He is finally back in Dubai using the Armenia route after cremating his father in India.
The engineer knows of at least 150 UAE residents completing quarantine requirements in Armenia.
Greyar Dsouza, 29, was among the last groups of Indians allowed into the Maldives before the nation of 1,192 islands shut its doors last month to travellers from India.
He was always nervous about not making it back to the UAE.
“The fear was always there in case of a rule change,” he said.
“What if I tested positive for Covid, I can’t go to India or the UAE? I would be stuck in a country where I didn’t know anyone.”
Why Armenia fits the budget
Mr Sarigommula’s father died of a cardiac arrest on April 24 and he left for the funeral a day before the UAE imposed travel restrictions on incoming flights from India.
"I was grieving for my father and I was also worried about how I would fly back to my family in the UAE," he told The National.
The Dubai resident checked travel routes through Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Moscow before deciding on Armenia because of his budget and the ease of getting an e-visa or travel permit online.
The cost from India via Armenia to Dubai including flights, accommodation and food was 85,000 rupees (Dh 4,300).
He drove 200km from his hometown in southern Warangal on May 12 to the nearest airport in Hyderabad and flew to Qatar.
He reached Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, the next day after a 15-hour layover in Doha.
Mr Sarigommula worked from his hotel room in Yerevan and stayed in touch with groups of travellers online for posts on new travel advisories.
He flew to Dubai after the two-week quarantine.
“I was so excited to see my baby daughter. I was just crying holding her because I was so tense about not reaching [Dubai]. This is our second home, if I’m not accepted back here, where would I go?” Mr Sarigommula said.
“The biggest regret of my life is that my dad could not see my child because of the lockdowns and worry about travelling with a small baby.
“My mother is now alone and I feel the pain of leaving her.
“But I could not take more leave. I’m the only earning member so I researched all options to get back. We hope the ban ends soon so I can get my mother here to finally see her grandchild.”
Quarantine on a resort island
Sharjah resident Greyar Dsouza needed to return to manage the family automobile workshops and a trading business in the emirate.
He was in Mangalore in southern India to plan his sister’s wedding on April 24, the day before the UAE suspended incoming flights from India.
He chose the Maldives when the UAE suspended flights from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh.
After much research, he travelled from Mangalore to Mumbai on May 11, stayed in the city for a day and took a flight to Male on May 12.
The day after he and a cousin landed in the capital of the Maldives, the country stopped flights from India.
"Ours was the last flight in,” he said.
He met travellers headed to Saudi Arabia and the US using the Maldives to quarantine.
There were also dozens of UAE residents who flew back last week and he left on May 27 for Dubai.
"We tried to relax as much as possible, but because nothing was certain, there was always a lot of anxiety."
He spent Dh8,000 ($2,178) on the flights, accommodation and food for travel from India via the Maldives to Dubai.
Travellers forge a bond
Groups of travellers looking for routes to return from India are constantly messaging each other in chat rooms for information on safe journeys back to the UAE.
Sushant Dalai, an engineer from Abu Dhabi, knows what it means to be stranded and is assisting about 700 residents on WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook groups.
When India and the UAE shut international borders in March last year to stem the spread of Covid-19, Mr Dalai had just got married and was separated from his wife for five months.
"There are families and women travellers so we try to provide support, from checking information about flights or asking people who have returned about hotels and meal services," he said.
Commercial flights from India to the UAE are suspended until the end of June at least, as the country battles to control a deadly variant that has overwhelmed health services in cities and villages.