Australians are adopting stranded backpackers during the lockdown

Bennett's Wallaby hiding among bracken ferns in Tasmania. .

The COVID-19 pandemic has left backpackers across Australia stranded. A growing social media movement is encouraging Australians to 'Adopt a Backpacker', connecting travellers in this unprecedented crisis with spare rooms, space for camping or even farmwork.

Image of a man standing at Grand Canyon track in the Blue Mountains, Sydney, NSW.jpg
Backpacker at Grand Canyon track in the Blue Mountains, Sydney. ©Chay Talanon/Shutterstock

Cancelled flights and rising ticket prices have left many backpackers stuck in Australia, with little chance of continued work in the economic downturn. Miguel Enrique Fuentes, a Filipino Nurse based in Perth and Nikki de Weerd, a Dutch backpacker, founded 'Adopt a Backpacker WA’ at the end of March when a close friend lost their job and was forced to leave Australia due to COVID-19.  “We decided to start ‘Adopt a Backpacker WA’ in the hopes of helping struggling and lost backpackers,” explain Miguel and Nikki. 

Vintage 1959 Volkswagen Kombi Van driving on country roads near the town of Birdwood, South Australia.
Vintage 1959 Volkswagen Kombi Van driving on country roads near the town of Birdwood, South Australia. ©Ryan Fletcher/Alamy Stock Photo

A month later, and the original Western Australia Facebook group has 5500 members while each state has its own dedicated Adopt a Backpacker Facebook group connecting hosts and travellers. Hosts offer up their homes in exchange for help or work, while some backpackers are also finding paid jobs.

“We have entire communities of Australians supporting our cause, offering their backyards, spare bedrooms, parking spaces, garages, empty lots, farmhouses, vacant properties, entire holiday homes and the most extravagant, entire beach resort houses offered to backpackers for free”, say Nikki and Miguel. 

Backpackers on Working Holiday Visas form the backbone of Australia's agricultural workforce and when bushfires ravaged Australia at the start of 2020, backpackers were asked to help rebuild devastated areas. 

Rows of grape vines with wagen wheel gate, in Australia's major wine growing regiion, Barossa Valley South Australia.
Rows of grape vines with a wagon wheel gate in the Barossa Valley. ©Ann Marosy/Alamy Stock Photo

When COVID-19 hit though, backpackers were told by the prime minister to go home and many have since faced discrimination from the communities where they worked.

Helen Hale, a Perth-based nurse, was one of the first locals to adopt backpackers through the online groups. “I could not bear to think of all these lovely travellers just camped up on the side of the road with no access to water, power and sanitation”, she says. Helen has invited three backpackers into her home. “Lucile, Pierre and Adrien have a car with a roof top tent and another tent is set up on our property. They do some work on our property in return for water and power, but they also do other jobs for which we pay them”.

Adopt a Backpacker Founders Miguel and Nikki.jpg
Adopt a backpacker founders Miguel and Nikki © Adopt a Backpacker

Debbie Noonan saw how backpackers were being made to feel unwelcome in Margaret River, a popular tourist destination and wine-growing region in Western Australia that traditionally asks backpackers to work the vineyards. Debbie has been inviting backpackers to stay for free at her guesthouse, which was forced to close due to COVID-19. “After seeing so many displaced and stranded young people in our region”, says Debbie, “it was an opportunity to give back and help someone in need”.

US backpackers Mark Stansbury and Brianne Bowman are continuing to have an authentic Aussie experience, despite the lockdown. “We were lucky enough to be adopted by a wildlife rescue in Henley Brook, Western Australia, in exchange for doing some chores around the farm and taking care of kangaroos. We love the kangaroos, it’s been an absolutely life-changing experience working with them everyday”. Brie Healy has been adopting backpackers stuck in the remote town of Tom Price. She’s hopeful that those backpackers who’ve stayed will be able to continue their travels after the lockdown ends. 

“Australians have always and will always adopt backpackers”, Brie says. “I am hoping that the government extends visas after this so these travellers can finish their dream holidays, they are able to contribute to our economy and be welcomed once again”.

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