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Saturday,  May 18, 2024 5:54 PM 

“We need urgent action”: YVR business, Indigenous tourism leaders demand Ottawa lift travel testing

“We need urgent action”: YVR business, Indigenous tourism leaders demand Ottawa lift travel testing
From left: Keith Henry, president & CEO, Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC); Claire Newell, president, Travel Best Bets.
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.

“I already know one travel agency that is closing because they will not be able to sustain it with the existing measures in place,” said Claire Newell, president of Travel Best Bets, speaking at a press conference on Wednesday (March 2) at the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel in Vancouver, BC.

Newell was one of several travel and tourism leaders to speak at yesterday’s event, one of several campaigns the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable has hosted recently to call on Ottawa to remove pre-departure rapid antigen testing for fully vaccinated travellers by April 1.

Newell noted how pre-flight testing continues to have a “big impact on bookings,” even if the federal government has begun allowing travellers to opt for an antigen test, instead of a PCR, to meet their pre-arrival requirements.

A test is still test, and clients, weary over the possibility of getting stuck in destination, are rethinking their plans, she said.

READ MORE: “We are still struggling”: Calls intensify for Ottawa to lift travel testing requirements

“Business travellers and families simply aren’t willing to take the risk of their trip abroad being unnecessarily extended,” Newell said. “For my business, I have seen a huge decline in bookings. We are still well below 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and I see the hesitancy that people have when making bookings while testing is still required.”

The Roundtable is calling on Ottawa to remove pre-departure rapid antigen testing for fully vaccinated travellers by April 1. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

Newell also highlighted Canada’s still-active Level 4 advisory for cruising.

Cruise ships, since Nov. 1, 2021, have been permitted in Canadian waters and the sector, currently, is weeks away from resuming possible itineraries (from Vancouver to Alaska, for example).

“A lot of Canadians love to do the Alaska run. They’re coming up to their final payment for the initial trips and we’re seeing a lot of people very hesitant to put down their final payment with that Level 4 advisory,” Newell said.

The government’s wage and rent subsidies programs are also set to expire March 31, a situation that is putting added strain on Canada’s hard-hit travel trade community.

“Canada’s travel and tourism industry is absolutely being left behind,” Newell said, saying that a decision on lifting travel measures must be made immediately.

“It’s right now that people are making their decision on where they want to travel for the rest of the spring and summer season,” she said.

“It's time to follow the rest of the world”

The Roundtable, a coalition of travel and tourism leaders, is urging the Canadian government to align with other countries, such as the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and Switzerland, that have removed pre-departure testing entirely.

Canada has reached a different phase of pandemic movement characterized by lower COVID-19 cases and high vaccination levels.

"The federal government's travel restrictions are still a significant deterrent at a time when we need to remove all unnecessary barriers to travel and make our region a destination again. Since the start of the pandemic, Vancouver has seen only a fraction of the 11 million overnight visitors it welcomed in 2019," said Bridgitte Anderson, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, yesterday.

Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of British Columbia, said the government’s recent border changes “don't provide the certainty necessary to attract families and travellers back to British Columbia.”

“It's time to follow the rest of the world and remove unnecessary testing requirements for fully vaccinated travellers and let the tourism industry get back to work," Judas said.

Help for Indigenous tourism

Then there’s the impact testing rules have on Canada’s Indigenous tourism sector, which, according to Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC), was “decimated” during the pandemic.

Indigenous tourism in Canada, which was “booming” in 2019, has gone from employing 40,000 workers to 7,000, Henry said.  

It’s a sector that relies heavily on international visitors – prior to the pandemic, 65 per cent of Indigenous tourism's sales revenue was generated from foreigners.

And, at its peak, Indigenous tourism was contributing almost $2 billion dollars to the Canadian economy in direct GDP, Henry said.

"We are calling on the federal government to reopen Canada to foreign travellers by immediately removing all remaining travel restrictions,” Henry said yesterday. “There's no reason to kill another summer travel season.”

Keith Henry, president and CEO of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). (Supplied)

The pandemic hasn’t necessarily bankrupted Indigenous-owned businesses – they’ve “hibernated,” Henry explained.

But with summer 2022 quickly approaching, “We need urgent action now,” Henry said.

“We need all measures and restrictions removed. Otherwise our industry will have a very difficult time managing yet another season lost,” he said.

Pre-departure testing, whether antigen or PCR, keeps visitors away, Henry said.

“We’ve seen it,” he said. “Although the U.S. market has opened up slightly, we just have not seen a return to any substantial visitation from that particular market as one of the key countries that has opened up.”

READ MORE: “Visit a local Indigenous experience,” says ITAC’s Keith Henry on National Day for Truth & Reconciliation

Henry also urged Canadians and politicians to look beyond the economic impact of policies and think about the cultural sustainability and revitalization of Indigenous experiences as they apply to a country that’s grappling with a “challenged history.”

“As we work towards a national policy of reconciliation, I don’t think a lot of people understand that we’re the industry that provides that platform,” Henry said. “When Canadians want to learn about residential schools, history or about local Indigenous cultures, it’s our businesses, our artists and performers that provide that.”

Henry urged governments to adapt some consistency in travel requirements.

“I cannot stress how critically important this is to the social and cultural reconciliation agenda that our industry provides,” he said.

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