What's it like to find yourself overseas leading a tour group when the world suddenly shuts down? For Travellers Choice member Kathy Granger it required some quick thinking and honest conversations.
Granger, owner of Tasmanian agency Burnie Travelcentre, departed Melbourne at the beginning of March, leading a group of 10 clients on a 19-night tour of Egypt and Jordon.
Although the world was slowly awakening to the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak, exponential growth in infections was yet to occur and the travel industry had still to fully comprehend the storm that was about to hit.
When the group touched down in Cairo, things were still calm and key attractions were operating as normal, but by the time they reached Luxor to board a five-day cruise to Aswan their plans were quickly being upturned.
“They essentially shut down Luxor, and confined us to our hotel because a couple of vessels came in with positive COVID-19 cases,” says Granger. “Luckily we got on a ship that night and headed for Aswan.
“We’d been monitoring news reports and logging in to [Travellers Choice private Facebook group] TC Connect, so while we were concerned, even at that point the enormity of what was happening simply hadn’t sunk in.”
Like a scene from The Mummy, shortly after the group’s delayed voyage reached Aswan a sandstorm descended, forcing them to stay on the ship for 24 hours. By now, plans for some of the group to fly to Abu Simbel had been abandoned, and when the storm finally cleared they all flew back to Cairo.
“We were meant to be flying to Jordon but of course it was closed. Thankfully The Africa Safari Co., who I was working with, were in touch the whole time and managed to secure us an additional two nights at our hotel. Meanwhile my staff worked on flights, eventually getting us on an Emirates departure.
"Throughout, the nine-hour time difference was a stress factor – everything took time to do as I would have to wait for Australia to wake up, or I’d get up in the middle of the night in Egypt to catch up with them.
“When we arrived at Cairo International Airport it was almost empty. There were just a few travellers desperately fighting to get a seat on one of the few flights still operating. The general feeling was ‘thank God we’re going home’. And thank goodness we did because the next day they shut the airport. If we hadn’t made that flight we could still be sitting in Cairo, and it’s not the easiest city to be stuck in.”
While it was an anxious time, Granger says the group were calm and trusted her expertise.
“I was honest with them throughout and if I didn't know something I told them. They had to make some serious decisions during the journey, not least of which was whether to pay for seats on the Emirates flight home, not knowing whether Royal Jordanian would refund them for the tickets not used*.
“So they put a lot of faith in me, they pulled together as a group and really kept their spirits up.”
Now in self-isolation, the group members talk each day, exchanging ideas on how to keep amused – although that’s not an issue for Granger who is working furiously from home.
“It was stressful and at times it was just surreal, but I did come away with some positive things from the experience,” says Granger. “For a start it really tested my ability to think on my feet and to respond calmly as events unfolded around us at a dizzying pace.
“It also cemented in my mind the fact that honesty is always the best policy. If you are honest, and just say ‘I don't know’, the people you are leading will trust you. And that’s vital."