We’ve seen plenty of international tourists returning to the city. But where are Macao’s own residents headed? And how do they feel about travelling after three years of relative confinement?
With mandatory nucleic acid tests (NATs) and strict quarantine a thing of the past, Macao News spoke with seven locals and expats who have dusted off their passports for 2023.
For some, an open border means they can finally do their jobs or compete internationally in sports. Others look forward to family reunions, a few can’t wait to explore more remote destinations, and some feel apprehensive about getting back out into the world.
Macao’s travelling couple resumes their travel plans
Travel was an integral part of Ken Vong and Sheila Leong’s life up until the Covid-19 pandemic. The married couple and content-creating duo, both in their 30s, had just returned from a trip to Thailand and Singapore when the government first introduced Covid-19 restrictions. That scuppered their 2020 plan to venture beyond Southeast Asia.
Since then, Vong and Leong have relied on local experiences (plus a few forays into mainland China) to share on their Instagram page, Weekday Couple, which has nearly 21,000 followers.
“We started it five years ago as a way of documenting our couple life, but as more people took notice, we realised that it was time to work more diligently on our content,” explains Leong.
Leong originally worked in civil service and Vong was in sales, but they’ve since turned Weekday Couple into their full-time jobs. As professional influencers, Vong and Leong are paid by brands to promote products and experiences to their followers via the endearing content they create to share on social media.
While international travel was a big part of their lives and business, the pandemic had a silver lining. “We developed a stronger national identity,” explains Vong. “We had to rethink – what is Macao really like as a place? Who are we, as Macanese people? What is Macao’s story?”
Nevertheless, Vong admits he’s eager to get back overseas. “I feel like I have been in the same culture for way too long, and am lacking new ideas to trigger my thinking.”
So, the couple have compiled a thrilling travel bucket list for 2023: skiing, scuba dining, and skydiving, in Japan, Australia, and India.
India will be a particularly special trip for Vong. He spent time there after graduating from university. He visited Mumbai, Agra, Delhi and many other cities, and can’t wait for his wife to experience the country’s unique communities and cultures.
“You realise that it is a completely different world in terms of the people, the lifestyle that they lead; spending time in India allowed me to reflect on my own life,” he enthuses. “In Macao, you rarely see strangers chatting with each other on the street, but in India, even strangers can chat for a very long time – there is a strong willingness to get to know each other.”
Leong says she’s looking forward to seeing India’s architecture and practising yoga in the land of its origin. “I think it’ll be a great place to feel that yogi vibe.”
Before the head off, the couple have been re-familiarising themselves with travel practicalities. Buying plane tickets, sorting out visas, planning an itinerary – Leong says it’s all more challenging than she remembers. She’s also considering the precautions they’ll take to avoid catching Covid-19, which could ruin a much anticipated trip and make getting home harder.
Challenges aside, both Vong and Leong are excited about all the places they can now visit. As Vong puts it, he “travels to explore and to expand [his] knowledge, in the hope the experience leads to positive self-change.”
A pro badminton player who’s happy to leave quarantines behind
Professional badminton player Annika Lam is celebrating the end of travel quarantines. The 18-year-old began travelling again sooner than most, participating in tournaments and training in mainland China, Thailand, and Malaysia across the second half of 2022. But travel restrictions made it much harder to do her job.
“I am so glad to finally get rid of the NATs and quarantines – I’ve had enough of them,” says Lam, who recently graduated from School of the Nations in Macao.
Quarantine can be tough on anyone, but it takes a particular toll on athletes. “They usually last for a whole week, so there is a large impact on my training schedule,” explains Lam. “I was losing one to two weeks of training time every month. And once you’re out of quarantine, there’s a recovery period. You can’t immediately go back into intense training, which eats away even more time.”
Her worst quarantine experience happened in Chongqing, in China’s Sichuan province. Lam thought she was disembarking the plane for a brief transit, en route to a training programme in Hangzhou. Instead, she was sent off to a Chongqing quarantine facility for 10 days. “I was in total shock,” Lam recalls. In the end, Lam lost a whole week of training time.
For the bulk of the pandemic, however, Lam wasn’t able to travel at all. Major badminton tournaments like the BWF World Junior Championship were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 outbreaks in host cities.
Lam’s feeling optimistic about a more open world in 2023. “Now I am looking at worldwide international competitions, scheduling them into my timetable alongside my training sessions,” she says. “I no longer have to worry about the mandatory NAT tests and quarantine durations, so can focus solely on badminton.”
The pilot who’s not that fussed about travel
For this Brazilian based in Macao, open borders mean job security, as well as the chance to visit family in South America and the US.
Rodrigo Silva Gomes, 39, is a commercial pilot who’s lived in the city since 2017. He says he’d fly around 80 hours per month pre-pandemic, mostly to Shanghai and Beijing. Between early 2020, when the government introduced Covid-19 restrictions, and January 2023, that figure dropped to five hours per month. “Almost zero,” Gomes says.
“For me, opening the borders is great. Aviation is picking back up, the market is picking back up.”
In August 2022, Gomes managed to get back to Brazil with his wife, son, and daughter. He and his son visited the US, too, where he renewed his pilot licence. When the family returned to Macao on December 31, Gomes was shocked to find most Covid-19 restrictions had been lifted, and he didn’t have to go into quarantine.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Gomes recalls. “The city was just like when I first arrived in 2017. I even asked my wife, ‘Are we already in Macao?’”
While being a pilot who lives abroad certainly makes Gomes a frequent flyer, he seldom travels for leisure. That doesn’t mean Gomes doesn’t love his job. He’s been passionate about aviation since childhood.
In terms of downtime, Gomes is a homebody who enjoys spending time with family and friends. His favourite place is wherever his two children are – and right now, that’s Macao. “There are no destinations on my bucket list,” says Gomes. “Some people want to go and explore the world, but I’m not that type of person.”
A 22-year-old teaching assistant who longs to roam
Natacha Dias, 22, was a university student in the lead-up to the Covid-19 pandemic and didn’t have much money to spend on international jaunts. But she’d travel to Hong Kong and mainland China every chance she got, even if it was just for the day.
The minute Dias got a job as a teaching assistant at the Montessori Centre, she began saving up for bigger trips. She initially found it frustrating that her new job coincided with travel restrictions.
“After the second year, it kind of became something we accepted,” she says. “It became something like, ‘I guess this is it, I think we’re just going to be here for a while’. So I stopped hoping to travel.”
Dias took her first flight in three years in November 2022. The Macao citizen travelled to Goa, in India, where she’d spent the majority of her teenage years. It was an especially fun trip for Natacha, because she was able to attend a cousin’s wedding while she was in India.
Since travel restrictions were still in place then, Dias had to quarantine when she returned to Macao. As soon as the restrictions were lifted, in January, her wanderlust returned with a vengeance.
Together with one of her cousins, Dias immediately dashed across to Hong Kong, where she enjoyed Tsim Sha Tsui’s famous shopping and nightlife, and joined a DIY neon art workshop at the recently renovated Central Market.
Her Hong Kong getaway was just the beginning of a big year of travel for Dias. She plans to venture further afield soon to visit Taiwan, as well as Changsha, in China’s Hunan province, where she hopes to see snow. Also in Hunan province, Dias hopes to explore Tianmen Mountain (also known as ‘Heaven’s Door Mountain’) north of Zhangjiajie city, which is known for its hiking, caves, temples, glass skywalks, cliff-hanging walks and vertiginous cable car ride.
Dias says she’s found herself veering towards more off-the-beaten track adventures than she did pre-pandemic, so wherever she goes, she invests a lot of time crafting itineraries that’ll expose her to new experiences.
“For example, I learned that there is a farm in Hong Kong where you can do strawberry picking, and also activities like horse riding,” she notes. “I also want to skydive. That is something I want to do at least once in my life.”
Travel is Dias’ main motivation for saving money. “I feel like you learn so much when you visit other cultures, and you kind of grow as a person,” she says. And looking ahead to 2024, Dias hopes to complete the Montessori teaching diploma in Bengaluru (also called Bangalore), India.
Getting to know the world again
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, 38-year-old António Monteiro travelled overseas three or four times a year – at a minimum. His favourite destinations include Portugal, Thailand, the Philippines and also Hong Hong.
Monteiro, who is president of the Youth Macanese Association, is currently looking forward to his first trip back to Portugal in five years. “Portugal will always be my second home, due to family ties, close friends from my secondary and university moments,” he says.
He’s also keen to introduce his three-year-old daughter to the country’s culture, nature, and food. Meanwhile, trips to Japan and Thailand are also on the cards for the near future.
“As parents, we want our children to visit other cities around the world; to show them the world is not only Macao,” Monteiro says. “I think the meaning of travelling is to get to know the world.”
More specifically, Monteiro is interested in exploring different countries’ history – he loves ancient artefacts – and their natural wonders. Nor is he opposed to sunny days on the beach.
Monteiro is noticing travel doesn’t feel quite back to normal quite yet. Plane tickets are pricier, he says, and he can’t shake concerns about catching Covid-19, though everyone in his family has already been infected. Monteiro worries about passing the virus on to vulnerable people, including his young daughter.
“It’s always a risk since Covid-19 is still a reality; we can only do our best to avoid the worst,” he says.
Open borders mean travel goes both ways, and Monteiro is almost as excited to see foreign tourists back in Macao as he is about leaving the city himself. “I support the reopening of the border, and especially the government strategies associated [with] touristic promotion, such as the pedestrianisation of San Ma Lou, which give tourists another point of attraction,” he says.
An American teacher who enjoys ‘just being in Macao’
American secondary school teacher Carla Jones felt a little apprehensive when Macao re-opened its borders. The 68-year-year-old and her youngest son, who is 29 years old, hadn’t set foot outside the city in four years.
Macao feels like home for the mother of three, who moved here in 2009 for her current teaching job – and has since earned her Macao resident ID card. Meanwhile, her two other sons and husband have been in the US for the majority of the past few years.
Jones’ husband had actually been in Macao for a short period before the Covid-19 outbreak, however, had returned to take care of his ageing parents in the US. The married couple have now been apart for four consecutive years.
“It’s been a long distance marriage for quite a long time,” Jones says, with a laugh.
Being separated from most of her family was tough for Jones, but the teacher says she appreciated how seriously Macao took the pandemic. She felt safer than she would have in the US, where restrictions were looser.
She has carefully avoided catching the virus so far, and has been largely content to stay put.
“Except wanting to see my family face-to-face, it hasn’t been terrible for me,” Jones says of the closed borders. “I enjoy just being in Macao. I don’t have the need to wander much.”
When the government suddenly lifted its pandemic restrictions, Jones admits to feeling “a bit vulnerable”. But as the realities of an open border sank in, she found herself looking forward to finally reuniting with her husband, sons and three brothers. Her family reunion is coming up quickly – she and her youngest son have plans to fly to the US to spend the summer holidays this year.
“I’m hoping to spend some time in Michigan, get out in nature again, and then round things off with a trip to Chicago,” Jones says. Unfortunately, she will just miss her middle son’s graduation from Dartmouth College, where he is earning his master’s degree in creative writing, this June.
While away from Macao, the teacher is keen to keep up her Covid-free record. “I will likely be wearing my mask any time I’m out in public, so to some extent I will stand out,” she says. “But I think it’ll be worth it.”