Coronavirus: Kiwi quarantined in Guatemala hostel pinning his hopes on partner's Korea repatriation flight

Liam Handley ,24, and his partner Hwari Hong.
Liam Handley ,24, and his partner Hwari Hong. Photo credit: Supplied

A New Zealander trapped in a Central America hostel due to COVID-19 is pinning all his hopes on the South Korean repatriation flight his partner is catching - or he faces an expensive and near-impossible journey back to New Zealand.

At the moment, Liam Handley is allowed to be on the flight to partner Hwari Hong's native Korea - but the 24-year-old Hamiltonian is feeling increasingly anxious as the plane out of Guatemala, where they're quarantining, doesn't arrive for another two weeks.

He's worried Korea may opt to close its borders to Kiwis before then, meaning the couple's latest plan to live with Hong's parents and apply for permanent residency in New Zealand there would be scuppered.

He admits Hong getting a New Zealand visa in the near future no longer seems likely given our strict protocol on non-residents during the coronavirus crisis. But they're hopeful they will at least get to be in the same country during the COVID-19 outbreak.

However if they are split up, and Handley is forced to find his way home to New Zealand, he may be facing a long wait.

"The [New Zealand] Embassy [in Guatemala] has been doing their best, but I don't think they can really do much. The last message I got was discouraging," Handley told Newshub.

"Originally there were 18 people in my hostel, and that's now down to seven. We had Canadians and Europeans whose governments came and picked them up.

The couple had planned to travel in Central America for five months.
The couple had planned to travel in Central America for five months. Photo credit: Supplied

"But when I contacted the Embassy two or three days ago, they told me I could get a flight from Los Angeles so they couldn't help me. [LA] is 4334km away, and the closest airport has been closed for nearly three weeks now."

Guatemala is in total lockdown, with police and the military enforcing self-isolation, so even if Handley is able to make the long trip to LA and then back to New Zealand, it would be an extremely complicated exercise.

It would also come at an extreme financial cost, as airfares around the world skyrocket in response to plunging demand.

"At the moment there's not many ways to get out," he said. "My friend from Australia just paid US$1000 just to get to Miami [from Guatemala], which would usually cost about US$200."

While Handley was conferring with New Zealand officials, Hong has been in contact with the Korean government, who told her they're sending a flight on April 14 that could transport them both there.

But he's concerned they will introduce more stringent border control measures on Kiwis before then - as they have in Japan - that would stop him entering the country.

"We're not married, so we don't know 100 percent [if I'll be allowed on the plane]," Handley said.

"She wants to stay with me, but I told her just to go - if you can go, just go, because she's obviously not allowed to come home with me [to New Zealand]."

Hong and Handley on their travels.
Hong and Handley on their travels. Photo credit: Supplied

Regardless of what happens now, the couple will have to completely rethink their plans for 2020.

He and Hong had been living in Melbourne for a year before they started their months-long overseas trip to Central America in January. She had lived with him in Auckland for a year before then, but her visa expired and they were forced to move elsewhere to stay together.

Having recently made it to the two-year milestone, Hong is now eligible to apply to become a permanent resident of New Zealand.

The couple flew to LA before heading south through Mexico, Belize and then Guatemala. They had planned to travel through Central America until May and then settle in New Zealand, but their scheme has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Hwari Hong and Liam Handley have been together for two-and-a-half years.
Hwari Hong and Liam Handley have been together for two-and-a-half years. Photo credit: Supplied

And Handley can't even go back to Australia, because there's no job for him there. He had been working for Flight Centre in Melbourne before the trip, but left the travel agency just before it axed thousands of staff redundant, including many of his former colleagues.

"Nothing like this was expected," Handley said.

Handley and Hong have been in quarantine at their hostel since March 15. They face 12 more days in isolation before the flight - and even longer for Handley if he can't get on the plane.