Canada’s move to tighten its COVID-19 testing procedures for air arrivals amid concerns over the newly-discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant is causing “a lot of panic” in travel agent communities as the industry deciphers new information while bracing for a wave of cancellations, says The Travel Agent Next Door’s Judith Coates.
“We're seeing a lot of panic in various agent groups on Facebook because there hasn't been clear information given and because travel advisors are afraid that the media is going to put a negative spin on it all, which will lead to more cancellations,” Coates, a co-founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), told PAX in an emailed statement Tuesday night (Nov. 30).
Yesterday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Canada will require people arriving by air from all countries except the United States to take a COVID-19 test.
"All air travellers coming from outside Canada, apart from the United States, will now need to be tested at the airport [where] they are landing in Canada," Duclos told reporters at a press conference. "They will then need to isolate themselves until they get the results of their test."
No official start date for the new policy was announced, but according to the Government of Canada's website, the new protocol will take effect soon "in the coming days."
This on-arrival test, which will be paid for by the federal government, is in addition to the molecular (PCR) pre-departure test travellers must complete before arriving in Canada, Duclos said.
The Minister also noted that Canada is preparing for a “possible extension” of this policy to include the United States and the land borders as the health situation evolves.
That decision will be based on discussions the Liberal government is having with Canada’s provinces, which would have to agree on extending the rules.
“It’s important to note that they are using the term ‘isolation’ until test results come back and not ‘quarantine,’” Coates said.
“For most travellers, this will only be 24-36 hours, so other than having an extra step at the airport, this won't inconvenience most travellers. They will just have to take an extra day off work.”
Meanwhile, the Government of Canada has updated its travel advice page to reflect the Omicron variant. The page now tells Canadians to "exercise extra caution."
"Be sure to check for information on the presence of this new variant at your destination, which could impact your ability to return to Canada," the government's website reads.
One possible solution
Coates just recently returned from a Caribbean cruise on board Celebrity Edge. For this, she received a PCR test on board the ship on Saturday at 4 p.m. and received “printed results at my door by midnight.”
In a similar fashion, self-administered COVID-19 testing kits, like the RT-LAMP ones recently launched by Air Canada and Switch Health, could be something the government could consider for speeding up the testing process, Coates suggested.
The boxed RT-LAMP tests offered by Switch Health produce verified test results within an hour.
“Travellers would get immediate results and travellers, technically, would get their results by the time they get home from the airport,” Coates said.
“Instead of creating panic, this should instill more confidence in travellers, knowing that they did not contract COVID-19 in the days just before their arrival home.”
Coates said her feeling is that this method is the “natural next step” to having 72-hour, pre-arrival destination testing removed.
At the same time, Coates said “it's unfortunate” that Ottawa announced a new testing policy while also unveiling new post-arrival testing/quarantining measures for travellers from 10 African countries.
As it was revealed yesterday, Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt will join seven other countries— South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini—that the Canadian government moved to restrict travellers from last week.
“It’s muddying the waters,” Coates said.
Beyond the Beach's Brenda Slater, also an ACITA co-founder, is urging travel advisors to let the details of Canada's new travel policies unfold before panicking.
"Hitting the panic button is not going to help us, our industry or our clients," said Slater. "Until there is more information, we just need to breathe for a minute. We will know more shortly (or 'in the coming days' - our favourite phrase!)"
Slater says the government did not react fast enough in shutting down borders when COVID first happened and that this go-around is just an "overreaction" in wanting to protect Canadians.
"Really, the only change is the addition of the COVID test on arrival with a day or two of self-quarantine until results received," Slater said.
"The new test-on-arrival protocols are not a bad thing as we have been asking for this to eventually replace the PCR testing required in destination. So the arrival testing system will already be set up in Canada to eventually drop the 72-hour prior requirement when the dust settles."
Her message to her fellow agents? "Please stay positive."
Financial aid still needed
Adding to the situation is the reality that independent travel advisors are still fighting for much-needed financial aid.
As the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) confirmed today (Dec. 1), “there is no indication that independent travel agents will benefit” from the Liberal government’s proposed Bill C-2, which will provide up to 75 per cent wage and rent subsidies to travel agencies who suffered a revenue decline of 40 per cent or greater.
“Many independent travel advisors are thinking of throwing in the towel,” Coates said. “We are continuing to meet with MPs this week, and in the weeks leading up to the Christmas break, to put pressure on the government to remember independent travel advisors in the tourism funding of Bill C-2.”
The emergence of the COVID-19 Omicron variant has led to some governments quickly shutting borders just weeks before the busiest travel season of the year.
“ACTA is closely analyzing the situation and is deeply concerned about the impact on travel agencies and independent travel agents, who are currently without financial support,” said Wendy Paradis, president of ACTA, on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a petition demanding sector-specific aid for independent travel advisors that ACITA launched in October is set to be read in the House of Commons by MP Marc Dalton of Pitt Meadows—Maple Ridge, BC either today or tomorrow (Dec. 2), Coates noted.
“This will keep our voice heard in the House,” she said.