You know you’re living the travel-dream when you don’t have to go home *sigh*. But what happens when you can’t go home? When the option is taken from you?

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, nations all around the world called for their citizens to come home. Not everyone could afford the rising cost of airplane tickets. For many long-term backpackers, it has been a new adventure in survival and endurance as their usual fallback job opportunities have also been affected by the shut-down. However, there is hope. And it comes back to the empathy of travellers: What if it was me? 

The Spirit of Travelling

On 20 March 2020, Australia was one of the first countries to close its borders to international travellers. All foreign visitors were strongly advised by the Australian government to return home, following social-distancing rules across the country. The impact on the travel, retail, and hospitality industry was immediate. As flights got cancelled, ticket prices skyrocketed, and the usual fallback jobs for backpackers started to dry up. 

Many of us who did make it home have been wondering: What if it was me stuck there? What would I do? Who would help me?

The amount of times I have been helped by other travellers in the spirit of ‘paying it forward’ is innumerable. The acts of goodwill range from a mother at the airport giving me a spare disposable diaper for my child to a passer-by sharing directions to the nearest pub for a drink of water. Fellow travellers know there are times of need and fellow travellers want to help. 

Adopt a Backpacker FB page
Adopt a Backpacker FB page

“Adopt a Backpacker”

Backpackers are a regular feature of the Australian culture, thanks to the Working Holiday Visas and diverse range of opportunities across the country. Many backpackers travelled out to regional areas to work in agriculture or to help rebuild areas devastated by the bushfires in December 2019 and January 2020. However, when the pandemic hit, they found themselves stranded outside the usual transport hubs, with no opportunities for work, accommodation, or travel. For many backpackers, this has created an added level of stress of balancing their Working Holiday Visas during the pandemic while trying to find a way to simply ‘live’.

Fortunately, there are people who want to help. It started with “Adopt a Backpacker WA”, a Facebook group. Miguel Enrique Fuentes, a Filipino Nurse, and Nikki de Weerd, a Dutch backpacker, created the online community to help fellow backpackers stranded in Western Australia to find a place to stay. A close friend of Miguel and Nikki was forced to leave Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic after losing their job and having no other options available. As travellers themselves, both Miguel and Nikki knew the community could help; it just needed a platform to get started.

Initially, the Facebook group was localised to Western Australia; people with room to spare could post their availability with a simple message saying “OFFERING” with location and whether it was a bed, couch, or otherwise. Backpackers could also post “LOOKING” with the same details. Within a month, the group had expanded to 5,500 members exchanging accommodation for work, arranging paid jobs, and helping out with transport to the airport when lucky enough to score the golden ticket home. 

Who Can Help?

Barbara and David consider themselves in the ‘lucky group’. Recently retired, they had returned to Australia in December 2019, after travelling around the world for nine months. During their travels, they had their fair share of unexpected but gracious moments. When travelling overnight by ferry from Incheon (South Korea) to Qingdao (China), Barbara and David found themselves stranded without ready cash for any meals. Fortunately, they were aided by a lady at reception who helped with vouchers for dinner and breakfast. Later, in Beijing, they were hit again with broken automatic teller machines and were unable to buy the train ticket to their accommodation. A passerby and fellow traveller helped them out and bought their tickets for them. 

Barbara and David C. (on right) with Thomas P. and Lauranne D. (Belgium), and Sieun Y. (Korea)
Barbara and David C. (on right) with Thomas P. and Lauranne D. (Belgium), and Sieun Y. (Korea). Photo: Ann-Marie Cahill

Back home, David saw the news reports on stranded backpackers and thought, what would we have done if it was us? After their own experiences abroad, both Barbara and David wanted to ‘pay it forward’ and help fellow travellers in need. Within a short period of time, they had already booked six people to stay with them: two campervans with two couples each (to park in the driveway), and a third couple to stay in the spare bedroom. 

“The old adage, ‘The Journey is the goal, not the Destination’ is so true,” said Barbara. “I can say the people we met all around the world were as amazing as the things we saw and did. For one of our visitors, they are happy to have somewhere to park their van and their parents are pleased they have someone to be there for them. We feel happy to be able to help someone in this crisis.”

For Lucy Moore, her travel experience in Australia was also her motivation to help. “Even though I’m in the UK now, I was backpacking in Australia a few years ago. As this crisis evolved, all I could think of was, ‘Thank God I’m not backpacking right now; this would be terrifying!”. Lucy is helping in another way as an administrator for the ‘Adopt a Backpacker NSW’. 

As the community grows, more and more travellers are finding refuge with locals. A quick check of the newsfeed shows a range of job exchanges for accommodation and food: tutors for kids learning from home; cleaning; fruit picking; pet sitting. Some hosts are simply happy to have some company, or a friend to trade travel stories with during the quiet moments of their day. 

Although restrictions are slowly lifting in some areas around Australia, no-one really knows when the pandemic will end. Many are unsure about the new ‘normal’ that awaits us on the other side. While we wait it out, it is good to know the travel community can still be there to help each other out. 

Barbara and David's local beach, Northern NSW
Barbara and David’s local beach, Northern NSW. Photo: Ann-Marie Cahill

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