These travelers are stranded due to restrictions on the Omicron variant

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(CNN) – When Mick Sturla went on vacation to South Africa, he had no idea that his eight day stay in a safari lodge would turn into a mad rush back home to the UK and involve sleeping in a rental car. under an airport terminal due to new and evolving restrictions related to the coronavirus variant Omicron.

Mick, 73, and his wife Jan, 73, flew 11am from Heathrow Airport on November 21 directly to OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg with the intention of returning home in the same manner on Monday , until British Airways canceled their flight last Thursday.

The new variant of the potentially more transmissible coronavirus first identified in South Africa has caused a new round of travel restrictions around the world and raised concerns about the next stage of the pandemic. Scientists in South Africa were the first to identify the new variant, but it is not known whether it started there or whether it was brought there from another country.

Hours after South African health officials announced the discovery of the variant, travelers found themselves stranded without warning.

Despite the bans, the new variant has already been found in at least a dozen countries. Most of the cases detected involved travelers returning from the region.

Sleep under the airport terminal

After arriving in Johannesburg, the Sturlas drove 4.5 hours to Graskop, stayed overnight and drove another 4 hours to their final destination at a hunting lodge near Kruger National Park.

“We had three fantastic days of safaris before things got to the fans,” Mick told CNN.

Jan and Mick Sturla at Elephant Plains Safari Lodge in the Sabi Sand area of ​​Kruger National Park on their last trip.

Courtesy of Mick Sturla

The Sturlas made the additional 8-hour return trip to OR Tambo International Airport on Sunday in hopes of completing their required PCR tests and catching a new flight they have booked in Mauritius. After passing the PCR tests required to travel, the couple slept in their rental car under the airport terminal during downtime before their flight.

At the last minute, their flight was canceled as Mauritius joined the list of countries with restrictions on flights and travelers from southern African countries. Mick hired a new car and hit the road for 2.5 hours to a bed and breakfast where the couple will stay until December 7, the earliest departure date given to them.

“We were both worried about missing Christmas with our grandchildren, and we still are because we are not out of the woods yet,” Mick said. “My wife was really in shambles and I wasn’t far behind, but we’re more relaxed now.”

A travel visa expiring in two days

Like the Sturlas, Movin Jain and his family also expected some rest and relaxation on a 10-day vacation to South Africa from Bangalore, India.

Jain, his wife, sister and brother-in-law arrived in Johannesburg from Bangalore via Doha on November 19 and were due to return home Monday on Qatar Airlines.

“We have not received any direct communication from the airline, but we saw in the news two days ago that Qatar had stopped taking passengers from South Africa,” Jain told CNN. “There is no direct flight from South Africa to India, and almost all of the countries through which we could catch connecting flights, have made a similar decision not to accept passengers from South Africa. ‘South Africa.”

On Sunday evening, Jain and his family drove to OR Tambo International Airport to try and board their scheduled flight, but ended up with empty check-in counters and closed airline desks.

The closed check-in counters that Jain and his family encountered upon arrival at OR Tambo International Airport.

The closed check-in counters that Jain and his family encountered upon arrival at OR Tambo International Airport.

Courtesy of Movin Jain

“We are therefore stranded, forced to extend our stay in South Africa at our expense, and without any direct or written communication from the airline, except for generic news,” he said. “We don’t know how long this could last. We have our jobs in India from where we were on leave, and we haven’t brought our laptops here, so we can’t work.”

Fortunately, the employers in the group understood the question, but beyond a week or so, they don’t know how flexible they will be.

Movin Jain, his wife Avantika Dwivedi, his brother-in-law Archit Sehgal and his sister Nikita Jain in South Africa.

Movin Jain, his wife Avantika Dwivedi, his brother-in-law Archit Sehgal and his sister Nikita Jain in South Africa.

Courtesy of Movin Jain

Jain has been in contact with the Indian Embassy, ​​which asks those stranded Indian nationals must submit documents and the details for them. They have since heard from a travel agent telling them that they will let them know if and when a charter will be arranged. The family’s travel visa expires in two days, according to Jain.

“It was a lot of anxiety for a few days,” Jain said. “What helped was that we were able to speak to the embassy officer, we were assured that someone in power knew about all of this and was thinking of us. we accepted the situation, things are going a little better. “

For the most part, Jain said her family were able to do the activities they had planned for her trip until the last day in Cape Town, where news of the travel restrictions hit, and that they focused. on finding a way home.

They tried to board 10 modified flights to no avail

Lauren Kennedy and her daughter Riley Campbell have been eagerly awaiting their vacation since April 2020, when it was originally booked, but had to postpone it due to the pandemic.

The family was at the South African airport when they learned of the new variant and the travel bans after landing from Zambia on the last leg of their trip. The family had booked return flights to their home in Raleigh, North Carolina, with connections in Europe, but current restrictions have dissolved those plans, according to CNN affiliate WRAL.

“By the time we entered the terminal it was already frantic and panicked and everyone was trying to change their flight reservations, so we were left in the confusion,” Lauren Kennedy told CNN’s John Berman. . “We probably … had about ten flights booked either canceled or we weren’t allowed to board the flight because most of the flights from Johannesburg go through Europe and these bans were coming in hour by hour. , day after day, that each country closed its borders to anyone who did not have a European passport.

“My fingers crossed we have flights tonight going straight to America, so you know, again things change by the minute, so we’re just trying to be calm, to be patient and Thankful that we are together and that we are safe and healthy, we have our negative Covid tests that we took yesterday, “Kennedy said.” We have all been vaccinated and have been holed up in this hotel room for how long long, three days, so we’re just thankful to be together. ”

Back to Zoom conferences

Andries W. Coetzee, professor of linguistics and director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Michigan, said being stuck in South Africa is not that bad because it experiences little to no interruptions in his life. job.

Coetzee grew up in South Africa, but this trip home was the first time since the start of the pandemic, and he was visiting both to see family in the northern Limpopo province and to witness an event hosted by North-West University, its South African Alma Mater, in Johannesburg on Friday evening.

He was supposed to return home to Ann Arbor on Saturday night, via Europe, but the flight was canceled when Europe closed its borders to flights from South Africa.

“After many hours on the web and on the phone, I was able to book my flight through Delta for a direct Johannesburg-Atlanta flight on Thursday, December 2,” said Coetzee. “In the meantime, I extended my stay at my hotel in Sandton. I chose to do so rather than return to my family in Limpopo province as it is easier to work from the hotel.”

The view from Andries W. Coetzee's family farm in Limpopo.

The view from Andries W. Coetzee’s family farm in Limpopo.

Courtesy of Andries W. Coetzee

In addition to adjusting the hours he is online for his students, he is thankful that his canceled flight gives him more opportunities to see his family and that the hotel he is staying at has a reliable internet connection.

“I’ve been able to move all of my meetings and teaching to Zoom, so my work continues almost as if I’m back in the States,” Coetzee said. “I am fortunate enough to be able to continue working with little or no interruptions. And to have been able to extend my stay at the hotel. This is not possible for many others affected by these new travel restrictions. “

CNN’s Christina Maxouris, Tamara Hardingham-Gill, Laura Smith-Spark and Ivana Kottasová contributed to this report.

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