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.
Say what you want about it, but ArriveCAN will likely become a permanent tool – a requirement – for travellers crossing the Canadian border.
At least that’s what the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), sharing updates on its lobbying efforts, thinks will happen.
“What we’re hearing is that the government loves ArriveCAN and that they may not get rid of it whatsoever,” said Avery Campbell, ACTA’s director of advocacy and industry relations, at a virtual town hall that was held for members on Monday (June 20).
The federal government’s smartphone and desktop-based application for ensuring travellers report their trips, vaccination status and health conditions before entering Canada is currently facing a firestorm of criticism from politicians, businesses and travel industry advocates who say the mandatory program, which launched in April 2020, should be turfed altogether.
Some argue the app is hurting cross-border tourism communities, while others say it’s difficult to use (there are seniors, for example, who may not know what an app is).
As COVID-19 vaccination rates in Canada rank high and as Ottawa suspends more travel restrictions – from ending pre-arrival testing for fully vaccinated travellers to recently lifting the vaccine mandate for air and rail travel – the consequences for failing to fill out ArriveCAN’s myriad of questions completely, and correctly, seem unreasonably harsh.
The government says that if you attempt to enter Canada without completing ArriveCAN, you could be forced into quarantine for 14 days or fined $5,000.
That’s even if you’re a fully vaccinated Canadian citizen.
READ MORE: Border mayors, MPs call on Ottawa to ditch ArriveCAN, saying it deters tourists
The tool is even being blamed for causing some of the excessive delays that have been reported at Canada’s airports in recent weeks – at Toronto Pearson, in particular.
(The app is leading to duplicative health checks, which adds volume to customs lines, some advocates have said).
ACTA, with the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable, a coalition of industry professionals that has been committed to restoring the sector, believes ArriveCAN will undergo changes in due time.
“There will be a transition from ArriveCAN being a COVID-19 product to a product that streamlines border entry and makes the airport experience more efficient,” Campbell said yesterday.
“That’s what we’re advocating for – take a tool the government loves that we don’t think they’re going to get rid of, but make it an efficient tool to make the travel experience better.”
Better than paper
On the government’s attitude towards ArriveCAN, ACTA isn’t wrong.
Last week, appearing before the House of Commons international trade committee recently, CBSA vice-president Denis Vinette said ArriveCAN has allowed officers to verify passengers faster than the old paper system, in turn, minimizing delays.
As of May 2, more than 99 per cent of air travellers and 94 per cent of people crossing at land borders submitted their information using ArriveCAN app, Vinette said, as reported by CBC.
The CBSA says it also intends to add customs declarations to the app.
READ MORE: Vaccine mandate lifts; policy could be reinstated, Alghabra says; on-arrival test kits coming July 1
"Later this month we will be rolling out, within the ArriveCAN application, advanced declarations where someone coming to the border will be able to pre-submit their customs and immigration declaration," Vinette told the committee.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has also implied that updates to ArriveCAN are coming, recently telling Global News that the government is looking to “improve” the user experience.
And changes are certainly needed: according to one statement by the union that represents the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), officers have become “technical support for people who are struggling” to fill out all the fields in the app.
Meanwhile, Ottawa says the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has added staff at airports to assist travellers in completing ArriveCAN if they were unable to do so.
Fixing airport delays
The future of ArriveCAN was just one of several hot topics tackled at ACTA’s town hall yesterday.
In a related issue, the status of airport delays – a subject that has dominated news headlines for several weeks now – was also addressed.
Wendy Paradis, ACTA’s president, said the Roundtable is “laser focused” on drawing attention to the problem – at Toronto Pearson, especially, where travellers have faced longer-than-usual wait times at screening checkpoints and prolonged holding on arriving aircraft.
“The causes of airport delays are complex but are largely driven by labour shortages, constrained airport space and delays in processing airport security passes,” Paradis said.
Delays at Montreal and Vancouver airports seem to be decreasing, Paradis said, calling Toronto Pearson “the most acute challenge.”
READ MORE: A “chaotic conga line”: Travellers face delays as YYZ grapples with staffing shortage
One reason Pearson is under the most pressure is because many flights from Asia (that would typically land in Vancouver) are still light due to variants and various zero-COVID policies that exist in parts of the world, Paradis suggested.
As a result, Pearson, being a hub for the Eastern U.S., the Caribbean and Europe, is the “most dramatically impacted,” Paradis said.
“If Pearson is impacted, then all airports are impacted,” she said, noting how there is a “real attempt to work together to quickly solve quickly any issues.”
Ottawa is on it
Ottawa says it has been “meeting regularly” with stakeholders to find solutions to airport bottlenecks, including at pre-board security screening and pre-clearance departure checkpoints and in customs halls.
Since April, nearly 1,000 CATSA screening officers have been hired across Canada, bringing the number of officers at Toronto Pearson and Vancouver airports to over 100 per cent of the targeted requirements for summer, officials say.
READ MORE: Airport wait times “continue to decrease,” federal officials say
The actions come as Canadians resume their travel activities in numbers that reflect pre-pandemic levels, according to Statistics Canada.
In an update shared yesterday, the government said wait times at airport security lines continue to decrease at Toronto Pearson, with about 91 per cent of passengers now being screened “within 15 minutes.”
In comparison, 84 per cent of passengers were screened within 15 minutes at Vancouver airport, which is “fewer than the previous week, but still a significant improvement since mid-May.”
An update on the removal of metering – the process of holding passengers on arriving aircraft for long periods of time – was not shared.
What’s next for ACTA?
Monday's town hall welcomed senior accountant at Your Bottom Line Mike Libbey, who discussed ways that independent travel agents can organize their business to manage risk from future emergency events.
ACTA, meanwhile, is moving forward with advocacy priorities that focus on the permanent removal of random airport testing, debt relief, fixing the labour shortage, reducing supplier wait times, improving travel’s revenue model and preventing the reintroduction of ineffective border measures.
This summer, the association will conduct a labour study on travel agencies and independent travel advisors to obtain data on financial compensation and the soft benefits of working in the sector.
To assist with this, a survey for travel agency owners and managers launched last week. Click here to complete the survey, which will be live until June 30.
The results of this study, along with other updates, will be shared this fall at ACTA’s in-person conferences, which will take place in Toronto (Sept. 14), Vancouver (Sept. 20) and Montreal (Sept. 28).
Registration for these events will open soon. For more details, click here.
Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today! Click here to follow PAX on Facebook.