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UK woman who flew to Tonga for the weekend still stuck there 18 months later

A British woman who flew to Tonga for the weekend ended up getting stuck on the Polynesian archipelago for 18 months.

Zoe Stephens, 27, was living in China when she decided to go travelling around Asia, ending up in Fiji.

From there, she flew to Tonga, made up of more than 170 islands, in March 2020.

She meant to stay for the weekend, but the South Pacific nation swiftly went into a strict lockdown.

“It took about a week before flights stopped coming in completely,” Ms Stephens told CNN Travel.

“We had a three-week lockdown, which was really, really intense. You could only leave your home once a week to go and get groceries and you had your car registration and name taken down.

”Everything in the entire country was closed. Shops, restaurants, everything apart from the odd one or two shops.“

Tonga declared a state of emergency that month and the country has shut its borders to foreign nationals ever since.

Ms Stephens said she kept holding out until she would be able to return to China, where she had previously lived for two and a half years.

But after spending around six months “in this weird limbo”, waiting in vain for borders to reopen, she’s now accepted she won’t be able to go back for the foreseeable future.

Originally from Crosby, Merseyside, Ms Stephens said that she did not feel “lucky” to spend the pandemic stranded on a largely Covid-free island.

“There’s not many people that can relate to, being stuck on an island without your friends or your family, in a country that you didn’t deliberately end up in,” she said.

“Or being locked out of the country that you live in, and then not being able to get back.

“And being scared to go back to your home country because of a weird virus that’s going around. So it’s pretty isolating.”

Ms Stephens said she keeps herself busy, paddle boarding, snorkelling, studying online and frequenting the small number of local bars and restaurants on the island, but described life as “really, really boring.”

She is finally booked to return to the UK at the end of August, but is “not getting [her] hopes up” as the flight schedules keep changing.

”Leaving will be very, very bittersweet of course, because I’ve kind of started to build a life here,” she says, “But nothing is real here. People say, ‘how can you leave a paradise island?’ And I’m like, ‘it’s great here. But it’s not my real life.’

”It’s not what I chose to do. It’s amazing, but I don’t want it.”

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