Ottawa reinstating its advisory against non-essential international travel comes as a “shock to our industry,” David Green, managing director for Canada, G Adventures, said in a statement on Wednesday (Dec. 15).
“Not only is this a setback to our industry as a whole, but it's a major frustration for travel agents who will now be inundated with calls from panicked travellers looking to cancel or rebook their holidays, when they should be enjoying a well-earned break before heading into their peak selling period in January,” Green said.
January, he said, traditionally sets agents up for the year ahead with strong sales, “but they now face more disruption and turmoil.”
At a press conference in Ottawa yesterday, Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos, just ten days before Christmas, announced that Canada is reintroducing its advisory against non-essential travel for four weeks, after which the warning will be reassessed.
It’s the same advisory that was quietly lifted on Oct. 21 for fully-vaccinated Canadians, marking a return to country-specific risk assessments. (The order to avoid all cruise travel, however, has remained).
The change couldn’t have come at a worse time as the travel industry was preparing for what the Canadian Airports Council, last month, said would be the busiest holiday season since the start of the pandemic.
And, as Green pointed out, travel sales – at least at G Adventures – were just starting to rebound after a successful Black Friday and Cyber Sale period.
“I urge agents not to give up hope over the next four weeks when we hope this decision will be reversed,” Green said. “We need to all keep fighting for bookings to continue changing peoples’ lives through travel.”
“Now is not the time”
While the government’s travel advisory doesn’t necessarily block Canadians from travelling, it sends a clear message that “now is not the time to travel,” Duclos said, which impacts consumer confidence, crippling the travel industry’s recovery efforts.
Citing a resurgence of COVID-19 infections – “even without taking into account of the new Omicron variant” – Duclos, yesterday, requested Canadians to "consider cancelling trips abroad" unless they are for essential reasons.
The spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale “makes us fear the worst for Canadians” that may think of travelling, he said.
“Travelling Canadians could contract the virus or get stranded abroad,” he said.
The Minister also said the government has 16 million booster doses available in stock and more will be arriving in the next few weeks.
The announcement stopped short of reintroducing harsher restrictions that were believed to be under consideration, such as barring entry of foreign visitors and ordering stricter quarantine requirements, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the country’s premiers on Tuesday night.
But warning against non-essential travel is enough to “send chills down the spine of travel advisors and clients alike, filling us with post-traumatic stress from March 2020," said Vancouver-based travel consultant McKenzie McMillan of The Travel Group.
Ottawa’s latest action, McMillan told PAX, is “a lot of bluster,” rooted in spreading fear, as officials “try to show that they are doing whatever they can, while really being light on substance.”
“We’ve lived with this same Level 3 advisory through most of the pandemic, and last summer, many were happy to travel, so I hope most clients will understand the logic and continue with their travel plans,” McMillan said.
The government has framed the current situation as dire – “and that’s probably enough to scare clients into cancelling,” McMillan said.
“With no real support for our industry in the near future, this will probably put most of us out of business in short order,” he said.
Follow the science
The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) said the new advisory will have a “devastating impact on travel agencies and independent travel agents, who were relying on holiday and winter travel revenue to sustain their business.”
“Considering the devastating economic impact of border restrictions and travel advisories, it is critical they are eased as soon as possible and following the best-available science,” ACTA said in a statement.
For McMillan, the update felt like a “nothing-burger,” but he doesn’t expect clients to see it that way.
“For travellers, the situation might be worse,” he added. “Since most flexibility policies have now expired, many clients with knee-jerk reactions to cancel will likely be out their entire cost, which of course, puts extra stress on us to keep our clients happy,” he said.
The update, in McMillan’s eyes, was “a bridge too far,” especially given the current global consensus regarding the severity of the newly-discovered Omicron variant.
“A constant state of panic”
Recognizing that the new variant is still under review, Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly, says the government and media are “keeping us and our clients in a constant state of panic.”
“The anxiety of wait times alone with suppliers is impalpable and there isn’t enough alcohol, medication, massage or psychiatry to eliminate the stress or worry completely for agents across Canada,” Luciani told PAX.
The pandemic has evolved into a debate of political science versus following the science, he said.
“The virus is never going away completely, but if we keep people out of the ICUs and do enough to keep our hospitals functioning, we should be able to learn to live with COVID versus this failed policy of total eradication,” he said.
After yesterday, Luciani said “we’re looking at another round of cancellations.”
“We all need to support each other and push governments to provide additional industry-specific support,” he said, urging agents to support ACTA, ACITA, call their MP/MPP and “make your voices heard.”
“The louder we yell, kick and scream, the more likely governments will listen and take action to support us,” Luciani said.
TravelOnly’s Pat Probert of Bob Family Travel called the update “another huge blow” to the industry, dashing many hopes of Canadians at “a critical time for both family vacation and mental health for families.”
“The Canadian government needs to do more to test Canadians returning from the beaches or winter homes at a reasonable cost and not just tell people now is not the time to travel,” Probert said. “What do they want us to do, travel to Algonquin Park this winter instead of spending it somewhere warm?”
“It really does seem like they are targeting the travel industry, including a lack of financial support, while helping other industries.”
Over the past week, Probert says his cruise sales have “been through the roof,” having just sold more than $900,000 in cruises for 2024 on one Regent Navigator ship in Tahiti and Bora Bora.
The demand, he said, has been strong for bucket list trips in 2022, 2023 and 2024.
“People are going to travel regardless of what the government imposes,” Probert said.
Show us the data
Canada’s toughened travel advice also “significantly undermines aviation’s proven safety record in response to COVID-19,” WestJet said yesterday.
“Air travel is the most tested and protected consumer activity in Canada, every person travelling internationally is tested on average twice throughout their travel journey,” said Harry Taylor, WestJet President and CEO, in a statement.
The advisory contradicts the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidance, which states blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of COVID-19 and adversely affect lives and livelihoods.
Mr. Taylor, on Wednesday, called on Ottawa to release what travel-related data it used to inform its decision, as the move was “not based on science and data,” WestJet said.
“We are very concerned today’s announcement will create unnecessary disruption and chaos in advance of the holiday travel season,” Taylor said yesterday.
Justin Clarey, an independent travel agent with CWT Vacations, said re-introducing the advisory “does nothing essentially besides scare people.”
“If you want to shut down travel, shut it down and make the tour operators refund,” Clarey told PAX. ‘Advising’ against it, but not actually putting any restriction in place, isn’t going to do anything but further hurt our industry.”
The last straw?
If travel is the “villain” the government is making it out to be, then they would have gone ahead and issued a Level 4 advisory, The Travel Agent Next Door’s Judith Coates told PAX.
Meanwhile: “We’ve heard no mention about cancelling hockey games, concerts, visits to the mall or shopping at Costco, where the risk is much higher,” said Coates, who is also a co-founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA).
“The government has already put measures in place so that only fully vaccinated passengers will be on flights. When you shop at Costco, you have no idea how many of the people nearby are vaccinated,” Coates pointed out.
Coates, too, is reminding clients that Canada has been under a Level 3 advisory before – since March 2020 – and “safe travel happened during that time by following safety protocols and common sense.”
Unfortunately, for many travel advisors who have worked tirelessly for little to no pay during the pandemic, yesterday’s news was “the last straw,” Coates said.
“We're continuing to encourage them to reach out to their MP to let them know how this is impacting their livelihood, and to ask their MPs to push for sector-specific aid for independent travel advisors,” Coates said.
After yesterday’s announcement, ACITA’s Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach said “we are in exactly the same spot we have been in since March 13, 2020, when our government asked everyone to come home.”
“So, not much has changed,” she said.
She is, however, publicizing the fact that Manulife’s COVID-19 pandemic coverage will still cover travellers for non-COVID and COVID Emergency Medical in a Level 3 advisory – a fact that, she says, was missed in yesterday’s media coverage of the update.
“Those who are determined to travel, will,” Slater said. “Those who are tentative, won’t.”
“We just need to remain calm, provide the facts and let our clients make decisions they are comfortable with.”
TravelOnly’s Nancy Wilson, also an ACITA co-founder, says the industry is “at its worst point,” a fact that, she says, hasn’t been fully realized by the government.
“Travel advisors, both bricks and mortar and independent, account for a range between 60-90 per cent of many tour operator businesses. If travel advisors cannot sustain themselves in this industry and walk away, how are these suppliers going to manage their businesses? Certainly, with hold times of eight to 10 hours, we already are seeing the industry in crisis,” she said.
“Without travel advisors, many with more than 20 years of experience, this industry may well be on its way to a collapse,” she said.
“We can and will overcome”
Flemming Friisdahl, founder of The Travel Agent Next Door, is skeptical of the government’s approach to advising against travel.
“I am not sure it will do much to stop the spread,” he said, referencing WHO’s official guidance on the matter.
While he appreciates the government wanting to reduce COVID-19 case counts to prevent hospitals from getting overloaded: “Knowing that everyone on a plane has been vaccinated gives me great comfort when travelling,” he said.
“With more than 80 percent of all Canadians being vaccinated, we should not be taking so many steps backwards. Let's just hope [the travel advisory] really is just for four weeks.”
Zeina Gedeon, CEO of Travel Professionals International (TPI), said the government “needs to be cognisant of the impact they have on our industry and on the public.”
“Creating panic and fear is not the right way to lead,” Gedeon told PAX. “Our advisors and all agents and suppliers alike have taken great strides to rebuild their businesses. They were finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and yet again, many now feel the wind has been taken from them.”
The “resilience and grit” that Gedeon has seen over the past 20 months will “no doubt continue,” she said, urging the trade to continuing working with ACTA “to make our voices heard.”
“We can and will overcome this recent setback by leaning on each other,” Gedeon said.