Minister of Tourism Randy Boissonnault had a lot of heartwarming things to say about Canada’s travel and tourism industry last week when the Government of Canada announced its decision to remove pre-departure testing rules as of April 1, 2022 for fully vaccinated travellers.
“There’s no denying that the tourism sector has been uniquely effected throughout the pandemic. In the past few months, I’ve heard from and met so many inspiring entrepreneurs, organizations and businesses in Canada’s tourism sector who have worked hard to keep their operations afloat,” said Boissonnault, who is also Associate Minister of Finance, at a press conference on March 17.
“I’ve heard their concerns.”
But has he really?
Boissonnault said Canada is ready to “welcome back the world,” noting a three-year $1 billion-dollar commitment, as part of the Liberals’ Budget 2021, in support of travel and tourism.
This equates to $15 billion in total support for tourism, arts and culture, including a $500 million tourism relief fund and an additional $12 billion in funding announced last December, Boissonnault said.
“We did this because we know the Canadian economy will not fully recover until our tourism sector recovers too,” Minister Boissonnault said.
Travel advisor and co-founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) Brenda Slater, of Beyond the Beach, watched this portion of last Thursday’s press conference with great interest.
ACITA, since June of 2020, has been advocating for Ottawa to introduce target financial aid for independent travel advisors (ITAs), many of whom have been without support since the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) ended in October.
(This, despite being among the hardest-hit entrepreneurs in Canada).
While the dropping of pre-arrival testing will be a boon to Canada’s struggling domestic sector, and help restore consumer confidence in outbound travel, Boissonnault’s positive words didn’t necessarily resonate with all ITAs, many of whom are still fighting for government support.
"He seemed genuinely happy to be having the backs of the tourism industry, yet there is so much more work to be done,” Slater told PAX last week.
The end of pre-entry testing is “definitely a big win and will help restore some confidence for both travel advisors and consumers.”
But as ACITA’s hashtag reads: “#wearenotdoneyet.”
“Reports from advisors and tour operators of ‘busy advisors’ are now clouding the issues,” Slater said. “Yes, we are busy booking for clients travelling this fall, and into winter 2023. But we are not paid commission on those files until the passengers depart.”
“So, although we are currently working long hours, we will not see revenue for several months to over a year. We need aid to keep us afloat.”
ACITA expressed this concern in an open letter to Minister Boissonnault on March 8, on International Women’s Day, because 85 per cent of travel advisors, who are women, have “been left behind by this government.”
The letter, which can be viewed here, highlights a double standard in the way federal aid is awarded, noting how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on Feb. 19, announced immediate support ($20 million) for Ottawa-based businesses that were impacted by the convoy protests.
While that funding was “absolutely necessary,” ITAs, too, face an urgent situation as many have not been able to recover, nor have been properly helped during COVID, ACITA says.
“We cannot help but wonder how it is possible to get eligible businesses this urgent assistance with such immediacy while we have been told by your office these things take time,” ACITA wrote Minister Boissonnault in their letter.
Only the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), both of which have ended, have offered a lifeline of support to some (but not all) ITAs during the pandemic.
ACITA, after more than 330 virtual meetings with politicians, has spent countless hours illustrating the dire situation agents face.
But after almost 24 months of advocacy work, few (if any) decisions on target financial aid have materialized, the group says.
Securing targeted help for ITAs is urgent, especially as leading federal aid programs, like CEBA, CERS, CEWS and RRRF, excluded many hard-hit small businesses.
ITAs haven’t received the same level of support as storefront travel agencies, for example, who have been able to use wage and rent subsidies to stay afloat.
Several efforts have been made to change this.
The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), in collaboration with ACITA, submitted an independent travel agent relief proposal to Ottawa last December called the Independent Travel Agent Relief Program (“ITARP,” for short).
The solution aims to create equity between ITAs and other travel and tourism small businesses.
It was created at the encouragement of Minister Boissonnault, ACITA says, because independent workers were excluded from Ottawa’s Bill C-2 Financial Support legislation.
The proposal, now, appears to be facing roadblocks.
“It is disappointing that financial support has not yet materialized, especially at a time of such dire need,” said ACTA President Wendy Paradis last week.
Earlier, Paradis told PAX that "the issue is ‘on the table’ until Budget 2022 is released by the federal government, and that ACTA is using all resources to advocate for “this critical and urgent need.”
But Slater is hoping ITARP will be implemented before the new budget is released.
“We understand from conversations that it has gone through the channels,” Slater said, “but we are not sure where it sits currently.”
“We are fearful that this will become a ‘possible budget item,’ which even if it is the case, will take more months to filter itself down to us, if at all.”
It appears governments are still failing to understand that tourism includes travel advisors too. “We are an incredibly important piece of the tourism puzzle,” Slater said.
Staffing shortages in the industry do not help matters either.
Long telephone wait times, lasting hours upon hours, continue to plague job satisfaction, Slater noted, and “if independent advisors stopped working, our suppliers would be crippled and our sector could easily collapse.”
TravelOnly’s Nancy Wilson, another ACITA’s co-founder, said the end of pre-entry testing was something ACITA has been asking for since the measure was first introduced in January 2021.
And while agents are “ready to open the flood gates,” growing pains are expected as life, and business, returns to what it (hopefully) once was.
The loss of quality staff from suppliers is “going to make our jobs challenging” moving forward, Wilson said, as agents try and meet the demand.
“Now, more than ever, we need our government to recognize the contribution travel and tourism has on our economy and ensure all sectors within it are well protected,” Wilson told PAX.
The Travel Agent Next Door’s Judith Coates, also an ACITA co-founder, called the government’s announcement “very welcome news.”
“But it doesn't make the last two years go away, or the fact that in all that time, the government chose to ignore the requests of independent travel advisors for aid,” Coates said.
What is “usually our busiest booking season” will be ending soon, Coates noted.
As many ITAs weren’t eligible for small business grant programs, nor the tourism funding unveiled in the last budget, many agents have had no choice but to leave the business, and find work elsewhere, to support their families, Coates explained.
“Many have been forced to sell their homes, max out their line of credit, and cash in their retirement savings, all so they can continue to operate their businesses and support their clients,” Coates said.
The end of pre-entry testing is a “win for all Canadian travellers,” Coates said.
“But there's still a lot of work ahead of us!”