Just over a month ago, I packed my life in Hong Kong into two suitcases and moved 16,000 kilometers to Barbados.
I’d never even been to the island before or traveled anywhere else in the Caribbean region for that matter.
Barbados is so far away from Hong Kong – the shortest travel time is 24 hours – that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance to visit.
But the popular destination, which resumed accepting international travel on July 12 last year, released a special visa called the Welcome Stamp in the same month. It offered the chance for people to work there remotely for a year. I thought, “Why not?”
As countries around the world continued to impose lockdowns and travel restrictions in a bid to contain Covid-19 in mid-2020, Barbados – and many other nations in the Caribbean – seemed to have the virus under control and was reopening to the world.
What Barbados requires to work there
Open to all remote workers who earn at least $50,000 annually, the visa scheme has a fee of $2,000 for individuals or $3,000 for families, which is payable after applications have been approved.
Applicants are required to fill out an online form, submit an income declaration and details of the work they’ll be conducting during their time on the island
Those who are accepted continue to pay tax in their home country and are not liable for income tax in Barbados.
“Covid-19 has changed the global business landscape as a larger number of people continue to work from home,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley said when the scheme was launched.
“With this new visa, we can provide workers with an opportunity to spend the next 12 months working remotely from paradise, here in Barbados.”
Welcome Stamp was just the ticket
The scheme would also help to drive Barbados’ economy, which relies heavily on tourism and has been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic.
In Hong Kong, reality was looking grim for me when I first learned of the scheme. As a freelance journalist specializing in lifestyle topics, I’d lost most of my work in 2020.
The pandemic had compounded the city’s politically volatile situation. It felt like my hometown was becoming a shell of its former self.
Still, I wasn’t ready to cut ties with Hong Kong entirely. I just wanted to go somewhere else for a while. Barbados’ Welcome Stamp was just the ticket, and it also offered the opportunity to expand my scope of work.
After learning that my application had been approved within a few days and taking some time to think it through, I completed payment in October and prepared to move in November.
Relocating during Covid-19: First, pick a route
Planning an itinerary that involves three days of voyage, at a time when international travel is highly disrupted, was a challenge.
There is no direct flight from Hong Kong to Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados.
Traveling, of course, isn’t the most responsible thing to be doing at this time. But as I’d be staying in Barbados for an extended period, I was willing to take the risk.
Because I am a dual British-Canadian citizen, I thought my safest bet was to do my layover in either of those countries.
That would eliminate any chance of being turned away in a layover country where I am not a citizen should border rules suddenly change.
A London layover was a no-brainer. At the time, Hong Kong was on the UK’s list of travel corridors, meaning I wouldn’t have to quarantine on arrival. Passenger arrival forms are required for both London and Bridgetown.
I booked to fly from Hong Kong to London, with a one-night layover, and then a morning flight the next day to Bridgetown.
Next, find a Covid-19 test site
Barbados requires passengers to present negative Covid-19 PCR test results taken three days before arrival, and only those taken by nasopharyngeal or oropharyngeal samples, rather than nasal swabs or deep throat saliva samples.
Self-administered at-home tests are also not accepted. My family doctor also warned me about Covid-19 clinics that were not accredited.
It took me some time before I was able to find a clinic that satisfied all my requirements, which needed to present results with a pretty quick turnaround considering the time between testing and arriving in Barbados.
On November 28, I set off for the airport in Hong Kong for my big move.
Unfortunately, while checking in for my Virgin Atlantic flight, I was told the London to Bridgetown leg of the journey had been canceled weeks ago – I’d received no prior notification on this. There would be no flight for another two weeks.
So I ended up unexpectedly remaining in Hong Kong for a fortnight. Paranoid about the rising number of cases in Hong Kong and conscious of the fact that I had to take another Covid-19 test before my new travel date, I spent most of the two weeks – including my 30th birthday in early December – at home.
Finally, on December 12, I got on the plane to London for the first leg of my journey.
Arriving and quarantining
London was in lockdown at the time. I had over 24 hours there, and I spent all of it in my room at an airport hotel.
The next day, I was surprised by how busy Heathrow Airport’s departure area was – a stark contrast to the ghost town that Hong Kong International Airport had become.
I’d been traveling for so long by this point that the nine-hour journey to Barbados felt like an eternity. But I felt my fatigue instantly fade away when greeted with the sight of the deep blue Caribbean sea as we circled above Grantley Adams International Airport.
I soon found myself basking in the sun as we were asked to form lines to present our test results to staff.
Clearing immigration was much quicker than I thought – and people seemed genuinely excited to see another Welcome Stamper arrive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lines for interviews with health officers took the longest. I was given paperwork that explained I was to take my temperature and submit them to the authorities via WhatsApp twice a day for seven days.
In addition, I would need to undergo a mandatory test four to five days after the date I’d taken a test in my home country. After that, I’d be free to roam around Barbados.
At my hotel in Holetown on the west coast – one of the government’s designated quarantine accommodations – I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was allowed to go out on the room’s patio area during quarantine.
The next day, the front desk helped me to arrange to take the test at a government clinic. Travelers also have the option to take it done in your room by a doctor or nurse, but at cost. Getting it done at a government clinic is free, though you’ll need to pay for a taxi to and back.
The taxi journey was an exciting chance to soak in the sights of Barbados before I could venture out.
Next to an array of colorful bungalow-style homes, I spotted a sign, issued by the local health authorities, in Bajan creole urging residents to stay home and “protect yuh family.”
At the time, visitors were told to expect their results within 24 to 48 hours. I’d taken my test at noon Tuesday and received my negative results in the early evening on Thursday.
Three or so days in quarantine seemed relatively minor when compared with the 14-day standard countries such as Canada adopted.
Working from paradise
With quarantine behind me, it was time to explore my new home. I moved out of my hotel and into an AirBnb in Hastings on the south coast while looking for a place to live.
Adjusting to my new working hours was not as challenging as I thought it would be. I had already anticipated that changes would be necessary after moving to the other side of the world. Barbados is exactly 12 hours behind Hong Kong.
Since most of my work is based in Asia, I work during the evenings – Asia’s morning. Working into the early hours is done when necessary.
That also means I typically take Fridays off – when I wake up, it’s already the beginning of the weekend in Hong Kong. But on the flip side, I also work Sunday late afternoons and evenings, which is Monday morning in Hong Kong.
The beauty in working remotely, and as a freelancer, is that I have tons of flexibility.
Around the time I arrived in Barbados, reports of misbehaving tourists who were breaking quarantine rules began to emerge. The country had had single-digit new numbers for months – but it had seemed like a series of quarantine breaches meant a community spread could be imminent.
On January 2, following the discovery of a cluster of new cases, the government imposed a curfew between 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The following day, there were 161 new cases – a major increase from zero cases the day before.
The curfew continued through the month, while case numbers continued to fluctuate. Travel rules changed – now visitors can expect to remain longer in quarantine compared with what I experienced back in December.
I’ve still been able to visit the beautiful beaches for which Barbados is famous – many of them are pretty empty, providing ample space for social distancing – though I noticed that many businesses had chosen to limit their services or operating hours, even without official guidance to do so.
St. Lawrence Gap, an area on the south coast famous for its dining and nightlife, was empty.
On January 27, the government announced a shutdown period from February 3 to 17. Most businesses are set to be closed, with only supermarkets and gas stations operating in limited hours. The curfew is also being extended to 7 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Being in lockdown while in paradise is probably not anyone’s idea of fun, but I keep reminding myself that I’ll have the rest of the year to explore this beautiful island.
For now, we’ll just have to prepare to enter what Mottley has described as “a period of national pause.”