Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Ottawa’s newly-unveiled suite of eased border measures for fully-vaccinated Canadians – which, starting Feb. 28, will allow travellers to opt for an antigen test instead of a PCR test to meet pre-arrival requirements – is receiving positive feedback from the travel industry.
The announcement “brings us one step closer to where our industry needs to be,” said The Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable yesterday (Feb. 15).
However: “The government missed an opportunity to align with other international jurisdictions that removed pre-departure test requirements” entirely, the coalition of travel and tourism leaders said.
READ MORE: “More needs to be done”: What Canada's airlines are saying about Ottawa's eased travel rules
The United Kingdom, Switzerland, Denmark and France, for instance, have removed all testing requirements at their borders for fully-vaxxed visitors.
“With these changes, the travel and tourism sector continues to be the only industry subject to mandatory testing, despite being safer than everyday activities,” the Roundtable said.
A big day of travel news
Yesterday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos unveiled major updates to Canada’s border measures, which kick in Feb. 28, 2022 at 12:01 a.m. (EST).
In addition to giving travellers the option to undergo a 24-hour pre-arrival antigen test (instead of a 72-hour PCR test), the updated rules include:
- A return to randomized on-arrival testing at airports and travellers, if selected for testing, will not be required to self-isolate while awaiting results.
- Unvaccinated children under the age of 12 travelling with fully vaccinated adults will no longer be required to self-isolate or avoid school, camp, daycare of other public spaces upon entry to Canada nor will they be subjected to testing.
- Downgrading the travel advisory on non-essential travel from level three to level two.
Travellers may still use a molecular test within 72 hours of travel, if they like, or furnish proof of a positive molecular test taken at least 10 calendar days and no more than 180 calendar days before entering Canada.
There is no change or easing of rules for unvaccinated travellers.
What ACTA is saying
The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) called the changes “an important step forward” but also made a case for lifting all pre-departure testing requirements for fully vaccinated travellers.
“Rapid antigen tests are an additional cost and often difficult to procure. All testing requirements create uncertainty and deter travel. There is no scientific basis to single-out travel for testing,” ACTA President Wendy Paradis said yesterday.
Lifting the global blanket travel advisory against all non-essential travel outside Canada is also important, Paradis said, noting how it affects the availability of travel insurance.
Adding to yesterday’s many updates, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Ottawa “will have more to say” on how testing at Canadian cruise ports will work “in time for the cruise ship season this spring.”
READ MORE: Vaxxed travellers can opt for antigen starting Feb. 28; advisory adjusted to Level 2; ban on int’l flights lifted at airports
Canada maintains a Level 4 “avoid all cruise ship travel” warning and ACTA says it is working to confirm whether this advisory will ease in the coming days or weeks.
Minister Alghabra also revealed that the international flight ban will be lifted at all Canadian airports.
Good for families + saves money
The Travel Agent Next Door’s Judith Coates, speaking on behalf the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), said the updates are “welcome news” for agents whose main business revolves around booking families during school holidays like March Break.
“Now parents will be able to travel with peace of mind, knowing that their unvaccinated children will not be hindered from attending school upon their return home from vacation,” Coates told PAX.
It’s also a “relief” for vaccinated travellers knowing that if they're selected for random testing on arrival in Canada, they won't have to isolate while awaiting results, Coates said.
Tannis Dyrland of Travel With Tannis shares that optimism.
Tuesday’s update is “a positive change for our industry as it continues to recover,” Dyrland told PAX.
Allowing vaccinated travellers to use “significantly more affordable” antigen tests to meet Canada’s pre-arrival requirement is “good news,” she said.
Antigen tests cost between $20 to $40 and produce results within minutes, whereas the previously-mandatory PCR tests can run anywhere between $100 to $200 (or more) and take up to 48 hours (or longer) to process.
Some resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean offer antigen tests free of charge to guests.
There is, however, a concern that antigen testing in destination can lead to false positives, “exorbitant price gouging” and counterfeit tests, Coates added.
Despite the lighter restrictions, ACITA will still stand by its recently-launched e-petition, which asks for a complete removal of testing in destinations. (Click here to view and sign).
A test is still a test
While antigen tests may save Canadians some time and money, pre-arrival testing, regardless of the method, is still a barrier to travel, some agents say.
After all, a test is still a test, and the worry of testing positive for COVID-19 while in destination, and being forced to self-isolate, remains.
Tracy Young, a senior travel consultant at Travel Masters, said she has clients who aren't risking a positive result out of fear of being stuck out of the country.
One of Young’s clients, for example, is looking for a high-end resort with room upgrades “as they want to be pampered more than ever, having not travelled in so long.”
“Telling them the $150 test is replaced with a $40 test is inconsequential,” Young said. “They need reassurance that they can get home after the trip.”
Dave Heron, founder and general manager of Pace Setter Travel & Tours Inc. echoed this concern.
“While many will express relief in not having to undergo costly PCR tests, the requirement for pre-departure antigen testing still has the possibility of positive results translating into denied boarding hanging over the heads of potential vacationers,” Heron told PAX.
With the Omicron variant, it’s no longer a matter of if we contract it, but when, he said.
“The concern on a family of four having to remain out of the country for an additional 10 days as a result of a positive result is still very much an impediment,” Heron said. “With so many other countries eliminating the pre-departure test requirement, it’s time Canada followed suit.”
“This really isn’t the time for half measures.”
Zeina Gedeon, CEO and president of Travel Professionals International (TPI), didn’t mince words in sharing her thoughts on yesterday’s “very disappointing” news.
“It is a slap in the face!” Gedeon told PAX. “Allowing antigen instead of PCR is a small improvement, but it does not address the number one issue our advisors and clients are worried about: clients testing positive and getting stuck in destination.”
“We remain without clear guidance on when these protocols will end, and with no updates on any industry-specific support, I feel the government remains ignorant on what travellers need, and therefore, our industry will continue to suffer greatly.”
Update will fuel demand
But Jakki Prince, chief epic officer of Prince Adventures Travel, an affiliate of TPI, thinks the government’s update will still generate new bookings.
Prince said she saw a "huge uptick” in business in early January after the holidays.
Yesterday’s update “will only fuel that demand,” Prince told PAX.
“This news is huge in reducing the stigma that travel is a source of virus cases and increases traveller confidence,” she said.
Prince said she has travelled “extensively” during the pandemic, staying updated on which destinations are safe to visit and on the latest safety protocols.
Her “first-hand knowledge” is one reason travellers feel confident reaching out to her, she said.
Despite the changes, Prince is still advising her clients purchase insurance (and call their credit card companies to see what insurance is already included).
“Rapid tests can still result in positive tests and quarantine in a country unexpectedly can be costly,” she said.
Meanwhile, companies are gearing up for what could be a busy reboot.
David Green, managing director for G Adventures in Canada, had one piece of advice for travel advisors: “buckle up.”
“The best is yet to come,” Green said yesterday. “There is a tonne of pent-up demand still waiting to be realized, which we are already seeing reflected in strong February sales results now lockdowns have been lifted.”
“We only need to look across the pond to our colleagues in the United Kingdom – who, in January, celebrated their best month since the pandemic hit – to see what a huge difference the removal of PCR testing and travel advisories does for consumer sentiment.”
Green says there’s a “large segment of potential travellers” who have been waiting for easier-to-take holidays.
“There’s now a huge opportunity to play catch-up,” he said. “The combination of pent-up demand, easing of restrictions and testing requirements – coupled with winter fatigue – looks set to be the perfect storm we’ve all been waiting for.”
“Take the wins when they come”
Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly, said the update is “what the start of a full recovery looks like.”
“Sales will increase and cancellations will decline as a result of the announcement,” Luciani told PAX. “Phasing out restrictions is proven to be the safest and most effective way to regain the travelling public’s trust in travelling again.”
Luciani recognized that “we’re still not done fighting” for the complete removal of restrictions, “but we have to stay positive and take the wins when they come.”
Flemming Friisdahl, CEO and founder of The Travel Agent Next Door, said the latest announcement “seems to be going more in the direction of common sense and what doctors are saying about appropriate steps.”
“COVID is probably with us for life, so we have to start living with it and get everyone vaccinated,” Friisdahl told PAX, adding that he sees clients who want to travel.
“These past two weeks have been the best in sales since March 14, 2020,” Friisdahl said. “We still need to be careful and not get ahead of ourselves, but this is a great first step.”
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