Covid-19

Out of work and out of luck in Queenstown

Jill Herron speaks with two stranded Czech travellers whose working holiday is over but who, like thousands of other foreign nationals, have nowhere to go.

Roman Cermak is worried about his mum who works as a nurse in the Czech Republic. He’s also worried about his elderly grandmother as his homeland battles Covid-19. For now, however, worry is about all he can do.

The 30-year-old events production manager and his partner Iveta Fabesova, 28, are two of about 1000 Czech citizens now trapped in New Zealand by travel restrictions. The Czechs in turn are part of a larger group of foreign nationals now stranded here. 

Cermak and Fabesova are spending the lockdown in a flat with four others in Kelvin Heights, Queenstown. Working and travelling in New Zealand since October, they lost their jobs when the lockdown was announced. Initially part of a welcome and ready casual workforce before the pandemic, Cernak worries they are quickly becoming the opposite – dependent on welfare in a country they can’t leave.

“Our plans were to stay over winter in Queenstown and work in hospitality. My girlfriend is an accounts manager and also planned to study at a language school. I was planning to work in events and have been speaking with Queenstown Winter Festival. Now It doesn't make sense for us to stay here. Nobody is waiting for people from abroad right now.”

Van life: Roman Cermak and Iveta Fabesova, now stranded in Queenstown, set up for a picnic lunch in the Mackenzie Country prior to the Covid 19 pandemic. Photo: Supplied 

Domestic travel, in their case from Queenstown to Auckland to meet repatriation flights, is not considered “essential” and not permitted under Alert 4 rules, Roman says.

A Facebook page for stranded Czech citizens in Australia and New Zealand reveals many Czech families, couples and individuals desperately trying to find a safe and legal route home. Czech Ambassador Tomas Dub (based in Canberra) advised this week on the page that the matter was being discussed in Australia, where 500 Czechs remain, as well as New Zealand. However, the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was asking visitors not to send requests for exemptions to the travel rules. 

It’s disappointing for Roman, whose long-anticipated Kiwi adventure only happened after a second working holiday visa application, “At the beginning we worked in a kiwifruit greenhouse and orchard in the Bay of Plenty. After that we have been travelling for one month, and a few weeks ago we started looking for new jobs in Queenstown.”

The couple had also worked as event volunteers, and had enjoyed nature, rafting, hiking and meeting locals along the way.

Now he says many employers, including vineyards, are only taking on Kiwis and exhaustive attempts to find work have so far failed. Some Europeans had found work and accommodation in other parts of New Zealand but, with tourism gone, Queenstown was not a good place to be caught in lockdown.

Sightseeing prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: Supplied

“Most often people are staying in campervans near orchards, but also in shared houses and hostels. In Otago most of them are just looking for jobs. In the Bay of Plenty there is a better chance to find a job during lock down.”

Roman says he’s now less worried about catching the virus than running out of money. In the meantime he and Iveta speak to family every day and pass the time carefully obeying lockdown rules.

“We are still trying to find jobs in vineyards, sending emails, text messages, calling, and reading the New Zealand and Czech news, and planning what to do after corona. Also cooking, reading books, watching films.”

With flights from Queenstown to Auckland and on to Vienna via Doha still booked for April 12, and despite falling in love with their temporary Kiwi home, the only thing they want to do now is bid it farewell.

*Made with the support of NZ On Air*

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