Canada’s current travel restrictions are temporary, but don’t expect for them to be lifted on May 1, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) on Monday (March 29).
This was one of several takeaways from a vital Zoom call between ACITA, a grassroots group that has been fighting for fairness on behalf of independent travel advisors amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and Canada’s top transportation official.
Addressing ACITA’s leaders – Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door, Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach and Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly – and 100 other travel agents who were invited to watch the virtual meeting in listen-only mode, Minister Alghabra didn’t mince words when it came to the topic of easing travel restrictions.
“He said that travel restrictions won’t be lifted on May 1,” Wilson, alongside colleagues Coates and Slater, told PAX in a separate Zoom call that took place immediately after ACITA concluded their session with the Minister.
Media, for the record, wasn’t allowed to join the meeting, which ACITA spent ten months trying to secure since starting its advocacy work in June of 2020.
ACITA’s team, however, agreed to share key details with PAX after they spent 45 minutes on camera with Minister Alghabra, outlining critical trade issues, such as commission protections and establishing a plan for restarting the industry.
“Direct as he could be”
On easing travel measures: “There weren’t any surprises,” Coates reported. “He gave the Liberal rhetoric about health and safety being of the upmost importance.”
What Minister Alghabra did say is that Ottawa is trying to get ahead of the third wave of COVID-19 and that the stricter travel rules Canada introduced in January have reduced importation of the virus by 90 per cent, ACITA said.
He was “direct as he could be,” Wilson said, in telling agents not to get their hopes up in thinking travel restrictions will ease by May 1 – one day after the April 30 deadline Ottawa and Canadian airlines have set for suspending air service to Mexico and the Caribbean.
Calling the travel industry “an unfortunate victim” of the pandemic, Minister Alghabra spoke on travel restrictions in general terms, and didn’t go into specifics, such as outlining an expiry date for Canada’s mandatory hotel and 14-day quarantine order, ACITA said.
What’s needed, urgently, is a reopening plan for travel and tourism, the group said.
“We don’t need restrictions lifted tomorrow,” Wilson told PAX, “but we do need to know what targets we’re aiming for.”
It’s not so much a question of “when” travel can reopen, Coates explained. Rather, it’s about asking for “benchmarks” so agents and agencies can plan for a recovery.
“For us, it’s about seeing a plan put in place,” Slater said. “A lack of a plan is disheartening.”
ACITA receives an invite
But there were some bright spots to share from Monday’s session, said the group, which is run entirely by volunteers.
“The meeting was very positive,” Slater said. “He wasn’t aware that [independent travel advisors] have been unable to access a lot of federal funding.”
“I think he was surprised by that and offered to bring that information to [Finance] Minister Chrystia Freeland.”
He must have really meant it.
Literally just over an hour after ACITA wrapped its meeting with Minister Alghabra, they received an email from the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Finance, inviting them to participate in a panel about COVID-19 expenses and programs.
It’s closed to the public, but you can all watch it on CPAC on April 1 from 4-5:30 p.m. EST.
Hey a win is a win. Just getting one-on-one time with Canada’s Transport Minister was a feat in of itself.
ACITA rallies members on a private Facebook page and, for months, has encouraged agents to schedule Zoom meetings with their MPs so they can explain why they need help during the pandemic.
Access to financial aid, rapid testing at airports, easing the 14-day quarantine order, and commission protections are some of the topics raised, via slideshow, at each meeting, which also gives politicians an opportunity to ask questions.
This was how ACITA’s call with Minister Alghabra unfolded, and even with 100 agents on the call, there were 50 more on a waiting list, ACITA said.
On commission protections
Minister Alghabra is at the centre of Ottawa’s talks with airlines as both sides negotiate terms for a federal relief package, which the government says is contingent on airlines refunding customers for cancelled travel amid the pandemic.
This is where ACITA’s fight for commission protection heats up.
Last December, the group launched a petition that called on Minister Alghabra to ensure that whatever bailout package is being prepared is conditional upon protecting commissions. (It was read into record in the House on Feb 4).
Without protections, mass refunds could claw back upwards of $200 million dollars in earnings from travel agents and agencies, says the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA).
ACITA believes agents are “slipping through the cracks” with federal funding, and this was a point in Monday’s presentation where Minister Alghabra seemed really engaged, the group said.
Did they receive any assurance that commissions will, in fact, be protected if mass refunds are issued?
Coates asked, but, “He didn’t go that far, which we kind of expected,” she said.
The Minister was, however, adamant that travel advisors are an “integral part” of negotiations with airlines – a point he has made before.
“That was encouraging,” Slater said.
Those Facebook ads
There was even one point in the presentation where the Minister appeared to be “taken back,” the group said.
This was when Coates cued up a familiar anti-travel ad, released by the Government of Canada, that has been appearing in Facebook algorithms as of late. The graphic is one of many circulating on social media.
ACITA inserted the slide because they felt the ad went against Minister Alghabra’s mandate letter, which states that he is responsible for enabling growth in Canada’s tourism sector.
“…And yet we’re seeing the exact opposite with ads like this,” Coates said.
The ads run even as the government maintains that just 1.8 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in Canada are connected to international travel.
Wilson added: “We’re all hurting because of this direct messaging.”
While a concrete response from the Minister wasn’t reported, “there was a reaction,” the group said, suggesting that, perhaps, “he didn’t expect for us to go that route.”
A seat at the table
Minister Alghabra was reportedly well aware of ACITA said their efforts should be applauded.
He acknowledged how they’ve been “very vocal” in the House of Commons, thanks to support from MPs, and invited them to call his office and participate in conversations about restarting travel.
The meeting was significant, ACITA said. However: “It’s the grassroots calls, the little things we’ve done along the way, that lay the groundwork,” Coates said.
ACITA has already launched a new campaign that involves agents delivering paper petitions to their MPs (apparently you only need 25 signatures to get something read in the House of Commons).
And more Zoom calls. To date, using Zoom, they've met with 170 government officials, from MPs to senators to policy advisors, and their 200th call (recognizing that there are some repeats) is on Tuesday.
“Until we get some sort of answer on sector-specific aid and move forward with tourism recovery, our feet will stay on the gas,” Slater said, who called on other agents to join their cause.
“The three of us are doing this because we love our industry. We aren’t getting paid. We just want to survive.”
“It just takes a couple of hours for each individual to be part of the greater good.”
You can also follow ACITA’s progress on Twitter here.
Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today