Thursday,  March 4, 2021  3:45 am

“A punch in the gut”: Agents, industry reacts to Canada's new travel restrictions


“A punch in the gut”: Agents, industry reacts to Canada's new travel restrictions
Michael Pihach

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.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement that flights to tropical destinations will be suspended until April 30th is sending shockwaves through the travel industry.

Starting Sunday (Jan. 31), Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Transat will be suspending flights to Mexico and Caribbean destinations, Trudeau said on Friday (Jan. 29).

Ottawa’s new measures aimed at restricting travel includes limiting air arrivals to four airports (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal) and mandatory PCR testing at airports, which includes quarantining in a government-approved hotel until test results are processed.

READ MORE: Flights to sun destinations suspended until Apr. 30; mandatory hotel quarantine confirmed

Hotel stays will last anywhere between three and 14 days, depending on the outcome of one's test, and will cost travellers $2,000, Trudeau said.

Trudeau, for weeks, had been urging Canadians to cancel all travel winter vacation plans. (File photo)

The news is fuelling anger and frustration from within the travel industry – one of the hardest-hit sectors amid the pandemic.

“Today’s announcement by Trudeau is a punch in the gut,” Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly, told PAX. “Targeting the travel industry is high profile but will do little to change the trajectory of the pandemic and only distracts from the root causes.”

Luciani said the government should be focusing on implementing rapid testing, rolling out vaccines and, “most importantly,” reopening the economy.

“Today’s announcement is yet another example of failed government policy and leadership,” Luciani said. “We deserve better.”Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly. (file photo)

“Sounding the alarm”

The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) is “sounding the alarm” for travel agents and travel agencies following Trudeau's update.

In a statement, Wendy Paradis, President of ACTA, called the situation “absolutely devastating for all sectors within the travel industry.”

“Without enhanced and urgent aid, and protection against commission recall there will be imminent business closures and bankruptcies among travel agencies and independent contractors – as we have been warning the federal government,” she said.

Wendy Paradis, President of ACTA. (Pax Global Media)

“However, as we have been stating for months to the federal government, travel agencies and travel agents cannot survive the brunt of about $200 million in recall commission on cancelled and refunded bookings related to the COVID-19 crisis.”

“ACTA reinforced the impact of these latest travel restrictions to the Federal Government again today and reinforced our message that any aid given to an airline or tour operator must include funding to cover travel agent recall commissions, and for a fund to cover past bookings already recalled.”

Paradis added that while ACTA understands the importance of protecting the health of Canadians, the impact of the new measures will further “delay any meaningful recovery” for the industry.

“We require immediate and focused discussions with the government to ensure not only the safety of Canadians and travellers – but of our travel businesses,” she said. “Travel agencies and travel agents need aid now. Our industry has been effectively shut down.”

David Harris, CEO of Ensemble Travel Group, said the news was “devastating for all verticals within the travel industry.”

David Harris, CEO of Ensemble Travel Group.

“…the government must clearly articulate their plans for recovery – including timelines and threshold metrics to facilitate return of an industry that is a significant driver of the global economy,” Harris said in a statement. 

Missing the mark  

The team at the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) said "we again find ourselves disappointed with the lack of information, as well as the thought processes that went into this decision making." 

In a joint statement, ACITA's Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door, Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach and Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly suggested that Trudeau is missing the mark in terms of protecting Canadians from COVID-19. 

"With only a cancellation of flights to Caribbean destinations, we feel this has not addressed the seriousness of the issues with community spread or provided additional support to the provinces to get this spread under control, where the majority of the issues are, not to mention that the majority of critical issues with this virus are not originating in Caribbean destinations," the leaders of ACITA said.

But the group hopes this will "bring the urgency of sector aid to the forefront, for all of our businesses affected by these cancellations."

Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door (left), Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach (top right), Nancy Wilson, TravelOnly (lower right).

Airline staff and all related sectors are now in critical need for support to survive, they said. 

"While they recognized airlines will need aid, no announcements on that leaves us again scrambling, and concerned for the future of our businesses," they said. "Independent advisors, as well as travel advisors in storefront agencies, and travel agency owners are at a greater risk today of shutting their doors for good." 

"The work we have ahead of us is paramount to ensure we can limit those closures as much as possible."

“Writing was on the wall”

Travel advisor Ethel Hansen Davey of Uniglobe Enterprise Travel Ltd. had been expecting bad news given the loud and sounding calls from the public and some politicians to restrict international travel. 

“The writing was on the wall,” Davey told PAX.

Trudeau, for weeks, had been urging Canadians to cancel all travel winter vacation plans, stressing that border rules could change at any time and without notice.

Davey finds the $2,000 price tag for the mandatory hotel stay particularly shocking, calling it “simply highway robbery.”

“I do understand that additional protocols have to be put in place for these hotels, but this is simply much more than would be reasonable,” she said.

The longtime travel advisor currently has clients travelling in Mexico's Mayan Riviera. She said she has been advising them to check the Government of Canada’s website for updates daily. 

“I’m hoping that they have been notified and are packing now,” she said, noting that she hasn’t been able to reach them herself.

Ethel Hansen Davey of Uniglobe Enterprise Travel Ltd. (Supplied)

Now she’s wondering how her clients will be able to get a pre-departure PCR test within 72 hours, as per requirements outlined by the federal government,

“Will these passengers be offered the chance to get the PCR test upon arrival in Canada since they are going directly into a 14-day quarantine?” she asked. “We can only hope so.”

The news comes as yet another blow to an industry that has already been battered.

“I feel badly for my fellow agents and our tour operator partners that are now, once again, faced with cancellations, refunds and the associated customer service issues,” Davey said.

"The tunnel just got significantly longer"

Dave Heron of Okotoks, Alb.-based Pace Setter Travel & Tours also wasn’t surprised by the news.

“With the shortfalls in vaccine deliveries, added concern over COVID variants, and a call by governments to stem the tide, cancellations by passengers over the past few weeks sent a fairly clear signal that first quarter 2021 travel would be a non-starter,” Heron told PAX.

He suspects that anyone currently in destination will have some “costly scrambling” to do over the next few days.

Dave Heron of Okotoks, Alb.-based Pace Setter Travel & Tours. (Supplied)

The move, he said, “sets the restart clock back significantly” for the industry.

Heron also thinks PCR testing at airports will be challenge given that labs are currently at or near-peak capacity.

“Sadly, the travel industry is unlikely to see much of a return until the fourth quarter of 2021, at the earliest,” he said, “and as such, the time has come for Ottawa to put forth a viable industry specific recovery program for an industry that was the first to shut down, and will likely be the last to recover.”

Laurie Keith, President of Romantic Planet Vacations based in Hamilton, ON, added that: "As a travel agency owner, if you haven't already changed your 2021 budget to zero revenue, I think now is the time. Unless, of course, you're selling something other than international travel." 

Laurie Keith, President of Romantic Planet Vacations. (Supplied/Sarani Photography)

"My heart aches for all of my friends in the travel industry and their investments, careers, jobs, passion and all of their hard work serving their clients. We thought 2020 was the most challenging year, until today's news." 

"The tunnel just got significantly longer." 

Trudeau will "destroy" tourism 

Richmond Hill, ON-based Teodor Mihail of Unravel World Travel thinks the restrictions will be a major set back. 

“It's clear that Trudeau wants to destroy the entire tourism industry and bring it back to zero,” Mihail told PAX. ”Back to the way it all started when the first steam train departed Montreal in 1886 for Vancouver.”

Even as Trudeau admits that a small amount of COVID cases are linked to travel, the government “got what they wanted,” said Mihail. “Action that didn't cost them a nickel, yet successfully killed millions of jobs and made travel companies lose billions of dollars.”

The federal government acts “like they don't care about the rest of the world,” he said.

Richmond Hill, ON-based Teodor Mihail of Unravel World Travel. (Supplied)

“Think about all the developing countries across the world that rely on tourism: all Caribbean destinations. Then comes Central and South America, and Africa, which are slowly opening borders to everyone around the world.”

“As a result, thanks to Trudeau, some countries will suffer even more than they already do," said Mihail. 

Canada’s previous restrictions were enough, he suggested. 

Mihail said he has clients who didn’t mind the 72-hour pre-departure testing rule, which shows that “travellers were getting used to the new rules and still love to travel.”

“Now, Trudeau is really having the last word and totally destroying it,” he said.

"I have lost everything"

Heather Hild of Pay It Forward Travel with Travel Professionals International (TPI) said the impact of Ottawa's new rules will be felt for a while.

"My compassionate heart is torn in this global pandemic between it taking lives through a virus but also through economic disparity," Hild told PAX. "Over night, millions of people globally lost their livelihood and the poverty crisis continues to increase leaving a devastating impact on sustainability around the world." 

"The travel industry supports every country economically and closing boarders entirely, when testing and health and safety protocols are evolving everyday, will definitely change the face of future travel."

She said the latest restrictions will be "hard to bounce back from." 

Heather Hild, owner of Pay It Forward Travel. (Supplied)

"I have lost everything that I have been working hard on for the past nine years," Hild told PAX. I am trying hard to hold onto my business for my clients and the future if travel, but I am not sure how much longer I can keep my doors open with absolutely no support from the government and no travel in the near future. 

Zeina Gedeon, CEO of TPI, called the news "devastating" but hopes the heightened measures will result in the industry reopening with "greater stability."

"While the world heals in these critical months, we urgently call on the Canadian government to implement sector-specific subsidies and grants for the long-term viability of our airlines, travel agencies and independent travel advisors across the country," said Gedeon. Zeina Gedeon, CEO, TPI

She urged the Canadian government to work with ACTA on its six-point recovery plan, to do more rapid testing, speed up the vaccine roll out and "enable our industry to start it is recovery." 

"Our industry is filled with passionate, hard-working individuals, and together, we will find a way to persevere, despite the hurdles in front of us," said Gedeon. 

Step up, Ottawa 

Amanda Beaver, President of GLOW Travel, called it “another sad day for our industry.”

“While we are all hopeful that these new measures put in place will assist in combatting the spread of COVID-19, we urge the government to step up and provide financial support for the aviation and travel industry,” Beaver told PAX

Amanda Beaver, President of GLOW Travel. (Supplied)

“It is important that the government recognizes our constant reworking of files to fit the new restrictions and support the agency community with commission protection included in their bailout packages.”

“As an agency. we cannot wait for the day when the restrictions are lifted and travel opens back up!”

"We are coming to the end of this mess"

Flemming Friisdahl, founder and CEO of The Travel Agent Next Door, said the news "is a bit of a surprise" given that travel only makes up less than two per cent of COVID cases

"I say this because many Canadians have been able to travel safely and smartly while taking care of their mental health," Friisdahl told PAX.

Flemming Friisdahl, founder and CEO of The Travel Agent Next Door. (Pax Global Media)

He also said the $2,000 cost for quarantining "seems quite costly and a heavy burden" for someone who has to travel for good reasons. 

"The great news is that we are still on track for vaccinating Canadians, who want it, by the end of September," he said. "We are coming to the end of this mess and that is good news."


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