When Covid-19 tipped the travel industry into turmoil, two Queenstown travel agents began helping others and ended up saving their own business.
Xtravel owners Tori Keating and Niki Davies organised seats on a cargo plane for 70 South Americans to return home on Wednesday.
They hoped it would be the first of many repatriation flights to take migrant workers and visitors home after months trapped in New Zealand, as well as providing inbound flights to bring Kiwis back.
The pair said they were inundated with requests from migrants and visitors to get them home when New Zealand moved into lockdown in March.
* Coronavirus: Thousands, including hundreds of Kiwis, still flying out of NZ every week
* Coronavirus: New Zealand citizens trying to charter a flight home held up by government approval
* Coronavirus: Kiwi travellers’ scramble to get out of Argentina
International flights were already full and even when they could find seats, it was almost impossible to get people from Queenstown to Christchurch.
After lockdown, they started a six-week stint volunteering at the Kia Kaha Community Hub in Queenstown.
“We weren’t selling holidays, but we were being paid by the government [via the wage subsidy],” Keating said.
“The least we could do was help give people clarity on what their options are on how to get home or what might be their options to bring family home.”
Thousands of migrant workers, who are now unemployed in Queenstown, want the chance to work and rebuild their lives. (Video first published on May 22, 2020)
The pair said they heard more than a thousand heart-breaking stories from families being forced to leave, including some living in New Zealand for 16 years and having children here and cradling crying middle-aged men.
Most had no jobs and no income, some had already lost money on flights, their visas were running out and there were no flights available to return to their countries.
Keating and Davies started looking at chartering flights and in May they organised eight Caledonians on a small Air Milford flight to catch the last repatriation flight home.
That opened a discussion with Air New Zealand and the largest airline in Latin America, LaTam airlines.
“That was a big thing because there’s so many people from South America working and living here.”
However, the amount of work to organise a repatriation flight was “huge” and included co-ordinating with embassies, airports, government departments, isolation facilities and immigration staff.
Much of that happened across different time zones and was vulnerable to airlines changing flights.
Despite the difficulties, they’ve helped get about 400 people on flights home but a new relationship with LaTam is about to boost those numbers.
The company has given them 70 seats on a cargo flight, departing New Zealand on Wednesday.
The catch-22 was that Keating and Davies had to personally guarantee the seats.
“It’s a big risk when borders aren’t open, but we knew that there was a need,” Keating said.
The flight was quickly filled and plans are now under way for another flight in about two weeks time.
People such as Ines Pereyra, who has booked her parents to fly home to Argentina for the medical care they can’t afford in New Zealand, are relieved.
“It’s a bit bittersweet,” Pereyra said.
“They want to go back because they are missing family, but they are happy to go to the beach and chat to the neighbours. They won’t be able to do that at home.”
The success so far has created new demands from Kiwis working in countries including Bolivia, Columbia, Brazil and Chile, Davies said.
Work was under way to secure a flight for them also, but it involved asking LaTam to change their route to make it possible for everybody.
“We’ve already got a waiting list of 100 and we haven’t even advertised it.”
Keating and Davies are still working to keep their business afloat but are proud to remain operational when they know so many others who are struggling.
Next week their staff member will return to full-time work,
They started the business when they were made redundant nearly five years ago.
“At that time we just made the decision that no-one else was going to tell us how to run our business and run our lives,” Keating said.
The past six months had been a huge amount of work, she said.
“We’re actually really proud of how we’ve been able to pivot and how we’ve been able to help literally hundreds of people.
“We’re not epidemiologists or virologists. We can’t come up with a vaccine, but what we do know is how to move people.: