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TORONTO — In recent weeks major players including Air Canada, Sunwing, WestJet, ACV and Manulife have introduced travel insurance coverage for COVID-19. And just today, Transat announced new coverage as well.
What’s the reaction from retailers?
The agents we spoke to are in favour of anything that can help jump-start bookings. For some, however, a small recovery this winter may not be enough.
The impact from the pandemic and its travel restrictions has been devastating for travel agents. One bright spot in recent days is the federal government’s commitment to extend the wage subsidy (CEWS) into summer 2021. But the advisory against non-essential travel remains, as does the 14-day quarantine rule for anyone coming into or returning to Canada.
Clients who viewed the 14-day quarantine as an impossible hurdle this spring and summer may think differently once the snow flies, especially now that they can get COVID-19 insurance coverage. Manulife is launching its Manulife COVID-19 Pandemic Travel Plan in October. And Sunwing, Air Canada, ACV and WestJet have all launched free COVID-19 coverage with partners including Manulife, TuGo and Allianz Global Assistance.
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However, the quarantine still makes for a big no-go for clients, says Ria Lishman, Manager, Myles Travel Plus in Beamsville, ON. “Clients have been inquiring about coverage [but] it seems the biggest stumbling block to re-booking is the 14-day quarantine requirement upon the return to Canada,” says Lishman.
In addition to the quarantine, many agents are struggling with the logistics of promoting travel amid a travel advisory. “The challenge about getting the news out is the perception that you are advising people to go against the Canadian government’s travel advisory to avoid non-essential travel. That could create a backlash from some quarters,” says Lesley Keyter, CEO and founder of The Travel Lady Agency in Calgary.
Keyter also wonders if counselling clients on travel plans with the advisory still in place necessitates a waiver of some kind. “There is a lot to consider from our perspective.”
That said, Keyter is all in favour of the new COVID-19 travel insurance offering. “I think it is a bold move on the part of suppliers and I applaud them.”
She adds: “Paramount in all of this is the need to get travel going again.”
Keyter’s agency has been doing its part by promoting the insurance news. “We have been putting out the word via our newsletter and have had some enquiries but people are still cautious about the whole thing. However as the weather gets colder and we move into fall then it may become more desirable,” says Keyter.
Jamie Milton, with Uniglobe Carefree Travel in Saskatchewan, agrees that it’s early days still. “We have had a few calls and questions about the insurance and trips, but not a lot of actual movement on bookings yet,” says Milton. “I think like anything, people need to get the information and then have time to process that information and adjust their thoughts on taking a winter holiday. I suspect we will start to see more bookings in a few weeks, once people have time to consider their options.”
She points to recent reports of flight crews having lower instances of COVID-19 than the general population, and no proven instances of transmission of COVID-19 onboard aircraft, to “help to reinforce [the message] that you can travel safely during this time.”
As for the challenge of promoting travel when there’s a travel advisory in place, Milton offers this take: “We know that everyone’s definition of ‘essential’ is different. Whether you need to travel for business, to visit loved ones, or for your own mental health, we believe that travellers should be able to do so as long as they follow all the safety protocols in place.”
The bottom line for Milton? “We appreciate the airlines and tour operators stepping up to provide coverage and peace of mind to Canadian travellers.”
Laurie Buck with Buckaroo Travel in Jasper, AB, says it’s “nice to see the airlines including insurance coverage, but it will take away from my revenue that I may make selling insurance.” She says bookings are few and far between for now: “Not many people even thinking at this point.”
Giselle Cloutier is happy to see the new insurance coverage come to market. But she won’t be taking any new bookings that come as a result, at least not for now.
“I think it is a great idea that suppliers are offering COVID coverage. It should give travellers more peace of mind,” says the home-based agent.
But, she adds, “I have been in survival mode trying to stay employed. I was lucky enough to have found temporary contract work in the health field and I take the hours whenever I can get them.”
Cloutier, based in Alberta, says travel feels “very uncertain and frustrating” right now. “The agents I hear, are working for free, making bookings, only to have to change them or run into many obstacles and unknowns depending on the different destination COVID situations they are encountering. The hours required, the uncertainty and the lack of a paycheque are not an option for me at this moment. I am a single mother of three. I still haven’t been paid my commission from a large booking I made in 2019, for travel in 2020, that has now been rebooked for March 2021.”
Cloutier hasn’t ruled out a return to the travel industry. But that’s down the line. “I believe that travel will bounce back when COVID is beaten or at least largely subdued. I will be there to pick up my travel business at that time. Right now, though, I will not be leading the way in the travel industry battle.”