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Sunday,  May 19, 2024 10:14 AM 

“Buckle up!”: Travel pros rejoice over lifting of pre-arrival tests; demand booms amid low inventory

“Buckle up!”: Travel pros rejoice over lifting of pre-arrival tests; demand booms amid low inventory
Canadian travel pros sound off on Ottawa dropping pre-entry tests. (File photos)
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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The Canadian travel industry had a good reason to pop a bottle of bubbly on Thursday (March 17) after the federal government officially announced that it will drop pre-entry COVID-19 testing for fully vaccinated travellers on April 1.

While randomized on-arrival testing (without the need to quarantine while awaiting results) will remain in effect, vaccinated Canadians travelling abroad, in two weeks, will no longer have to worry about getting stuck in destination over a positive return-home test.

The change is welcome news for travel advisors, and the travel industry at large, which, for months now, has been calling on Ottawa to end border testing and level the playing field with other countries who have dropped the requirement.

READ MORE: It’s official - Canada is ending pre-arrival testing for fully-vaxxed travellers on April 1

On Feb. 28, pre-entry antigen tests replaced the previously-mandatory (and more time consuming and costly) molecular PCR test. 

From left: Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra on March 17, 2022.

But industry pros have argued that any form of pre-arrival testing is a barrier to international travel.

The Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable has repeatedly called border testing a “non-science-based” obstacle, leaning on Ottawa’s own COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel, which, in May 2021, advised to eliminate pre-arrival testing for fully-vaxxed travellers, and testimonials from doctors who say pre-arrival testing no longer makes sense. 

Yesterday, in a statement, the Roundtable welcomed Ottawa’s update.

“This positive development will bring Canada into better alignment with other major countries, is a recognition that the Canadian travel and tourism industry has long been among the country's safest, and brings the industry closer to a return to normal,” the Roundtable said.

Canada’s vaccine mandate for planes, trains and ships remains and for partially or unvaccinated travellers entering Canada, pre-entry testing rules are not changing.

Unless exempt, all travellers five years of age or older who do not qualify as fully vaccinated must continue to show proof of an acceptable pre-entry COVID-19 test result, the government noted in a press release yesterday.

Travellers in this group will also continue to receive a PCR test on arrival and must test again on day eight while they quarantine for 14 days.

All travellers must still use ArriveCAN to enter Canada, Ottawa says. (Pax Global Media)

All travellers must still use ArriveCAN to enter Canada (and those who fail to do so may have to test on arrival and quarantine for 14 days, regardless of vaccination status, Ottawa says).

Fully vaccinated cruise passengers in Canada will also no longer be required take a test before disembarking their ship.

The end of pre-entry testing is complemented by Ottawa, last month, lifting its advisory against non-essential travel.

Lots of requests, low inventory 

Travel advisors say the changes will boost consumer confidence after two years of pandemic-related border closures and lockdowns.

Shalene Dudley, owner of Oakville, ON-based Latitude Concierge Travels, is just glad she has a team ready to go as inquiries from vacation-hungry clients start to pile up.

Shalene Dudley, owner of Oakville, ON-based Latitude Concierge Travels. (Supplied)

The requests, Dudley told PAX, “were already rolling in” before Thursday's announcement as her clients have been trying to secure trips over the next few months and next year.

“There’s no way I, [alone], would have been able to handle the amount, volume, and turnaround time we’re experiencing right now,” Dudley said.

A lot of clients, she said, are ready to take their kids on short trips, “knowing that there isn’t much availability” as there previously was, she said.

Jamaica, Mexico, Saint Lucia and “idyllic locations around the globe” are among the top-requested destinations in Dudley’s inbox these days.

But as pent-up demand takes hold, inventory has become scarce, said Dudley, whose team is looking at new properties for clients because the traditionally popular options aren’t available.

“We have to be prepared,” she said.

"Insane" weeks ahead

Vancouver-based McKenzie McMillan, a travel consultant with The Travel Group, called Thursday’s announcement “the best news we’ve heard” after two years of living a “collective nightmare.”

For McMillan’s clients, pre-entry testing was “the single-biggest hurdle” in deciding to travel internationally.

“While PCR testing, and to an extent antigen testing, was cost prohibitive to families, the bigger concern was the possibility of being stuck in destination for up to 11 days if a test came back positive,” McMillan told PAX. “Without that cloud hanging over their vacations, I expect we will see an extreme surge of new bookings in the coming days and weeks.”

McKenzie McMillan of The Travel Group. (Supplied)

McMillan suspects the weeks ahead are going to be “insane” with inquiries.

“But I’ll take the sleepless nights, and hours on the phone, over what we’ve all been through since March 2020,” he said. “I just hope I can find space on flights for my clients. Certain destinations from Vancouver, like Palm Springs and Puerto Vallarta, are already so booked up.” 

To that end, McMillan said his clients are also ready to pay a premium “for that last-minute trip to the sun.”

Targeted support still needed

In a statement to PAX, Avery Campbell, director, advocacy and industry relations at the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), applauded Thursday’s news.

“In partnership with the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable, ACTA has been advocating intensely for this outcome,” Campbell said, thanking those who have engaged in grassroots efforts to help ease border restrictions.

“This is a precondition to travel and tourism recovery.”

But the advocacy work isn’t over, Campbell cautioned, as revenue is earned only after travel is completed, which means travel agencies and independent travel advisors “will be among the last to recover.”

This is why “critical” wage and rent subsidies under the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program be extended until September, Campbell said, and that “immediate financial support” be available to independent travel agents.

“While we're seeing an uptick in bookings, and expect to see more following today’s announcement, our sector is many months from recovery and continued support is necessary,” Campbell said.

ACITA co-founder Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door. (Supplied)

The Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) agrees. 

The lifting of test restrictions “will definitely make the demand for travel in 2022 even stronger,” said ACITA co-founder Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door, “but it doesn't make the last two years go away, or the fact that in all that time, the government has ignored the requests of independent travel advisors for aid for our sector.”

While Coates took Thursday’s news “as a win for all Canadian travellers,” there’s “still a lot of work ahead of us,” she said.

“Buckle up!”

Flemming Friisdahl, president and founder of The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND), called the elimination of testing “way overdue.”

“The government has always said they would follow the science, so it’s about time,” Friisdahl said. “But I hope we continue to have a mask requirement for planes as it offers protection and its effective.”

The good news is that consumers want to travel, Friisdahl said, and this month will be TTAND’s “best month ever in sales.”

Louise Fecteau, general manager of Transat Distribution Canada (TDC), believes the easing of restrictions will “certainly have a positive impact on traveller demand, as some were held back by the sometimes-cumbersome logistics and costs of these tests.”

“Our travel professionals are eager to do their job, which is to focus on creating travel itineraries tailored to their clients' needs. Removing this requirement is also one less logistical element for our travel professionals to worry about,” Fecteau said.

From left: Louise Fecteau, GM, TDC; Flemming Friisdahl, president/founder, TTAND; Christine James, VP, TL Network Canada. (File photos)

Christine James, vice-president of TL Network Canada, said the update is “great news on two fronts.”

“For clients who can easily enter back into Canada after their international trips without the expense and added pressure of having to undergo testing prior to their return and for Canada’s tourism industry to welcome the world back!” James told PAX.

“Our members are already reporting a significant increase in the amounts of inquires coming in from their clients since this was announced!”

For Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly, the announcement is “a big win for us.”

“We should truly enjoy the moment and the feeling of hope and prosperity,” Luciani said. “With that said, the fight is not over and I believe all travel restrictions should be dropped and more government support should be provided to all levels of our industry.” 

“We are now set to see the greatest rebound in the history of our industry. Buckle up!”

From left: Gregory Luciani, president/CEO, TravelOnly; Zeina Gedeon, CEO, TPI. (File photos)

Zeina Gedeon, CEO of Travel Professionals International (TPI), echoed that view.

“By removing the testing, we are on the right track for recovery,” Gedeon told PAX, “but we have a very long way to get before we’re near the new normal!”

“Our industry is in shambles, no thanks to all the government closures and recommendation for people to not travel,” Gedeon said. “Our industry has been decimated because of COVID and because of the decisions of our government.”

“Now, the onus is on the government to help us in training, promoting, and creating interest in our industry,” she said. “We need programs, funding, reskilling, and initiatives focused on driving growth and sustainability.”

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