How Greenville couple stranded in Caribbean during pandemic escaped never-ending paradise
A 10-day vacation in the Caribbean for a Greenville couple celebrating their anniversary turned into a month of uncertainty that cost them tens of thousands of dollars before they were able to get home.
Richard and Yukichi Hagins arrived in the country of St. Maarten on March 5.
Richard is chairman of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce and CEO of a facility maintenance and supply company. Yukichi is on the United Way of Greenville County board of directors and a real estate agent.
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By the time their trip was coming to an end, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic had jumbled international flights. The Hagins were among thousands of U.S. citizens stranded abroad as travel rules tightened.
By April 8, the State Department and American embassies helped 50,000 Americans evacuate foreign countries during the pandemic. That included 11 travelers from Charleston stuck in Peru, where they were ordered by soldiers not to step outside their Airbnb for more than a week, USA Today reported.
St. Maarten's Prime Minister announced travel restrictions in mid-March, around the time many other nations did the same, prompting many travelers back to their home countries.
"We saw on the news everyone was piled up in the airport like a herd of cows, so our biggest concern was going through those airports and having a very high chance of getting exposed to the virus, so we decided that we would stay put," Yukichi said.
They re-booked their flight without a problem. But then the airline repeatedly rescheduled the flight, only to cancel it again without notice, Yukichi said. Eventually they learned the flight was April 4 – a month after they arrived.
As the Hagins tried to enjoy their extended vacation and keep up with their jobs from afar, life on St. Maarten was coming to a standstill.
"We had some really nice stuff to wake up to and look at, but there was still that sinking feeling inside," Richard said. "This wasn't our reality."
The resort they were staying in shut down, so they rented a condo where they were near a number of other travelers also waiting out the pandemic.
By early April, the Hagins learned the government there was issuing a curfew and ordering residents to not leave their homes for two weeks. After some prodding over the phone, the Hagins learned their flight was pushed back again, this time to May 2. They needed to find a new way home, or spend another worried month in St. Maarten.
A friend back in Greenville connected them with SAI Flight Services Inc., a charter flight company based at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport. In a couple days they were on a private jet, bound for GSP.
"There's no place like home, and home is definitely where the heart is," Yukichi said. "The minute when the wheels hit the runway it felt like heaven."
Their extended vacation and flight cost about $35,000 more than expected.
"Obviously, we never planned to spend that much money to go on vacation," Richard said. "So this has been not only the longest vacation we've ever had together – over 30 days – but it was costly."
And still, they agreed they would love to go back to St. Maarten, under better circumstances.
Haley Walters covers public safety, crime and breaking news. Email her at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @_haleywalters