More clients asking about winter trips, putting agents in a tricky spot

TORONTO — More agents are talking about what needs to be done to get travel going again, however gradually, as the world continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic head-on.

After the release of ‘Canada’s Flight Plan for Navigating COVID-19’ on Aug. 14, and reaction from travel agents, we heard from more agents about the COVID-19-related concerns they’re hearing from clients.

Agents say flight and airport worries are on the list. But it’s the 14-day mandatory quarantine, and the advisory against all non-essential travel outside Canada, coupled with the resulting near-impossibility of getting travel insurance coverage for COVID-19, that are the real problems.

“No one likes the two-week quarantine requirement upon return to Canada,” says Jennifer Trofimuk. Her agency, Planes, Trains & Kids Travel, is based in Calgary.

Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine for all travellers arriving in and returning to Canada, already extended once, could be extended again past its current Aug. 31 end date. The Canadian travel industry’s #timetotravel movement calls for the safe but effective loosening of Canada’s travel restrictions.

In the early days of the pandemic, when fear and panic were rampant, few people could fathom travelling anywhere, for any reason.

Since then there have been five months of social distancing and other health and safety protocols, and many weeks of mandatory mask use.

The new normal has set in, and that has some Canadians feeling more confident about potentially booking a trip, says Trofimuk.

“I think more and more people are starting to feel like we are going to be living with COVID-19 for a while, and that we have to start living our lives again, along with all the safety precautions,” she says. “I think people would consider travel to areas where they feel it’s not as risky, avoiding hot spots.”

Trofimuk says that if the quarantine was lifted, “I know I’d have requests for bookings for the fall and Christmas season. But, with the quarantine still in place, I really don’t think any of my clients are going to be travelling any time soon.”

Sabine Mussaed with The Travel Desk in Markham, ON says that with all the restrictions still in place, most passengers – “unless they have a valid and urgent reason to travel” – will avoid it.

Airplane and airport concerns are up there with her clients, says Mussaed, and she echoes the feedback that the 14-day quarantine is the biggest sticking point, “especially for business travellers.” Insurance concerns, fear of getting stranded and dealing with restrictions when entering other countries are also on the list.

On the bright side, Mussaed says she’s heard from a lot of clients who can’t wait to take a vacation or go visit friends and family, or discover a new country or city.

“We hope that in the coming months, things will be more clear and the world will have a handle on COVID-19 and passengers will feel safe to travel again,” says Mussaed, adding that “once we are over this, we will be very busy. Hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

Natasha Rhodes, also in Calgary with Rhodes Less Travelled, part of the Vision Travel network, says the longer the pandemic drags on, “the more confusing it is to navigate all the channels: country restrictions, new booking policies, insurance, redeeming credits. It seems everything changes so quickly, as it did in the beginning.”

Rhodes also cites the quarantine and the difficulties in finding emergency medical coverage that will cover COVID-19 as the biggest challenges for her clients.

Yet she also sees client sentiment changing, for the better. “In the past month, I’ve seen more and more clients going from ‘I am not traveling anywhere anytime soon’, to ‘what destinations do you think might be available for us come winter time?’” says Rhodes. “Travellers are getting the itch as we start to think about the colder months ahead.”

That leaves Rhodes, and many travel agents looking to advise their clients, in a tough spot. “The issue for planning now, is the uncertainty of what things will look like in 4 – 7 months from now. Do they plan, place deposits, or wait until the trip is more certain? Even with refundable deposits and flexible booking policies, some clients are concerned given the experience with previous trips cancelled and the T&Cs changed numerous times.”

Rhodes says that during last week’s Virtuoso Travel Week, she had a meeting with a property in Costa Rica, who advised that travellers can purchase medical insurance through the Costa Rican government that will cover COVID-19, should they get sick.

Third-party insurance coverage from unexpected sources, from destinations, resort companies and even airlines, is a trend that’s gaining momentum.

Rhodes says she finds the trend interesting “and something more destinations should look at to provide a comfort level for travellers considering where they can go.”

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