Victoria Keating has barely slept in days and her small team of Queenstown travel agents is in desperate need of a break.
- X Travel is helping Australians return home from South America on freight flights
- More than 120 will arrive today in Sydney from Chile, paying $4,000 a ticket
- Another 1000 are still stranded in South American nations including Peru and Colombia
For weeks, they have been working from across the Tasman to help Australians stuck in various parts of South America.
Today, they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a charter flight from Chile’s capital, Santiago, to Sydney.
“It’s been quite the rollercoaster,” Ms Keating said.
“Getting the plane was difficult, getting the seats into Australia was difficult.
“We just really wanted to try and get as many people home as possible.”
More than 120 Australians are expected to arrive on the charter flight, which cost passengers just under $4,000 a ticket.
After they disembark in Sydney, the plane is scheduled to fly to Auckland where it will pick up South Americans wanting to return home from New Zealand.
“Which was particularly scary … it’s a big risk to take but we knew that the demand was there.”
Limited options for Australians in South America
Ms Keating moved to New Zealand from Australia nearly 17 years ago.
As COVID-19 shut the international travel industry down last year, she noticed a large number of South Americans living in Queenstown with no way of getting home.
Her agency, X Travel, started trying to find people seats on cargo flights but were soon inundated with requests from Aussies and Kiwis in South America wanting to travel in the other direction.
“For many countries, including the likes of Peru and Colombia, the borders actually didn’t open until October,” Ms Keating said.
Samuel McDowell and his family got seats on another one of X Travel’s flights earlier this year after struggling to find a way home from Paraguay, where he and his wife were working as doctors for a rural health clinic.
“They were just brilliant, they made it all happen,” he said.
“The [other] options were very convoluted, you had to go up through America or even worse through Europe and the risks of getting stranded were very high.
“And then of course there’s the cost. And for a family of five like ours, $50,000 was not reasonable or attainable for us at that time.”
Race against time for pregnant Australian
Another Australian with personal experience of the challenges many are facing is Annalisa Powell, who recently made it home from Brazil.
She first wanted to return after she and her Brazilian partner lost their work as musicians due to COVID-19.
However, the situation became more urgent when they realised she was pregnant.
“[Our] flights got repeatedly cancelled and then bumped and then cancelled … and it was getting later and later in the pregnancy,” she said.
Ms Powell completed her two weeks’ quarantine in New South Wales before arriving in her home state of Western Australia.
“When we touched down on Perth soil, I was just exhausted I guess from the whole experience,” she said.
“We were sitting in the airport waiting for my parents to come and when I saw them I just broke down, it was crazy.
“I think at this point in my life I need some family support and I just didn’t have anything in Brazil.”
Australian Government defends support
Ms Powell speaks highly of the support she received from the embassy in Brazil but other Australians in South America have told the ABC they feel let down by the federal government.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said the government had provided support for the charter flight landing in Sydney today.
It also said its highest priority was helping vulnerable Australians overseas.
“Since March, DFAT has helped over 40,700 Australians return on over 500 flights including over 15,000 people on 108 government facilitated flights,” it said.
“Twenty of these facilitated flights assisted Australians to return from South America.”
Of the 40,000 Australians around the world still registered with DFAT as wanting to return, around 1,000 are believed to be in South America.
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