TORONTO — Well, here’s a head scratcher: Canada officially lifted its cruise ship ban on Nov. 1, 2021, finally permitting cruise ships back into Canadian waters, and yet there’s still a federal advisory against all cruise ship travel outside of Canada.
It’s a conundrum that continues to confound and frustrate both travel agents and their clients who have waited over 18 months to set foot on a cruise ship. The cruise ban, which first came into effect on March 19, 2020 during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, was lifted early by Transport Minister Omar Alghabra on Nov. 1, 2021, four months ahead of the originally scheduled Feb. 28, 2022 deadline date. The Nov. 1 date came just weeks after the federal government announced the reopening of the U.S. land border, plans for Canada’s vaccine passport for international travel, and the elimination of its long-standing blanket travel advisory.
The message from the Government of Canada rings loud and clear: international travel for Canadians can safely resume – so long as they’re not on a cruise ship.
According to the government website travel.gc.ca, Canada is very much looking forward to welcoming cruise ships back into Canadian waters for the 2022 cruise season. However, authorities are still advising against cruising outside of the country because if an outbreak of COVID-19 were to occur on the ship, “the range of consular services available to those on cruise ships may be significantly restricted by local authorities, especially in situations of quarantine.” The website also says that it’s unlikely that government-organized repatriation flights to Canada would be available.
However, with travel restrictions easing and increasing vaccination rates across Canada, not to mention the stringent health and safety protocols implemented by cruise lines since the start of the pandemic, travel industry experts and professionals say it’s also time to lift the cruise advisory.
“Now that the global ‘avoid all travel outside Canada’ travel advisory has been lifted by the federal government, it is also time to ease the ‘avoid all cruises’ advisory,” Wendy Paradis, ACTA president, tells Travelweek. “ACTA and our advocacy coalition partners have intensified our advocacy efforts to the Canadian Government and this issue will be a key advocacy priority until the cruise advisory is eased. This is an important issue for travel agents and the travel industry at large.”
Travelweek reached out to travel agents to see whether the ongoing cruise advisory is impacting bookings, here’s what they had to say:
“My cruise sales are zero right now”
Lise Archambault of Algonquin Travel & Cruise Centre-TravelPlus in Ottawa, ON, says that 40%-55% of her clients are regular cruisers, sometimes sailing two or three times a year. Prior to the pandemic, revenue sales were “robust,” since her cruise clients preferred longer voyages (10 days or longer) with luxury cruise lines.
But then Covid led to blanket cruise bans in both U.S. and Canadian waters early last year, causing cruise bookings to dry up overnight.
“My cruise sales are zero right now,” says Archambault. “I have a client just waiting to book a world cruise but you have to understand that these deposits are non-refundable. I do not recommend that people pay non-refundable deposits while a cruise advisory is in place – they will not get their money back.”
Scott Penney of The Travel Agent Next Door in Stewiacke, NS, tells Travelweek that the cruise advisory has not had a significant impact on cruise sales in the long term (“In fact, I’ve seen an increase in my 2022 bookings and I have had lots of inquiries and some bookings for 2023,” he says), but it’s a different story for the immediate short term.
“My first clients to cruise since last year were to sail in January 2022 but they recently made the decision to postpone their cruise until spring 2022. So I think there’s still some hesitancy among some clients, which is understandable,” he says.
“What are we supposed to do?”
With no cruise bookings in sight, Archambault says the cruise advisory needs to lift, and lift now.
“On Nov. 1, the Minister of Transport lifted the ban on cruise ships in Canadian waters, however there’s still an advisory for Canadians to avoid all cruise ship travel outside of Canada. This is absurd,” she says. “What are we supposed to do? Embark on a ship and cruise around the harbour? Vancouver, Montreal and other Canadian ports deserve much better leadership than that.”
Penney is in total agreement, saying that travel is back and clients are anxious to explore the world once more. Although he’s confident that the cruise advisory will be lifted soon, he’s still discouraged by other roadblocks in the way, namely pre-departure PCR testing.
“The requirement for a negative PCR test to return to Canada is still a deterrent for many clients. They see it as just another unnecessary added cost that they need to factor into their travel budgets, which can be costly, especially for a family looking to get away,” he says.
Just yesterday, the Canadian Travel & Tourism Roundtable called on the federal government to remove the pre-departure testing mandate, calling it a prohibitive expense for Canadian families.
“I have truly lost faith in these insurance companies”
Helping the case for cruising is Manulife, which announced at The Travel Agent Next Door’s recent ‘Agent ExtraordinIRIE’ conference in Montego Bay that it will once again be covering cruises for fully vaccinated travellers, even with the cruise advisory still in place.
Penney says this will definitely help give cruise bookings a boost, adding that the issue of insurance has been “a concern for some clients who’ve wanted to book up until now.”
Archambault, although encouraged by Manulife’s news, still sees travel insurance for cruises as an ongoing issue.
“Some insurance companies make you buy a travel insurance policy immediately, whether or not the deposit is refundable, while others will allow you to wait until the trip has a non-refundable portion and will include quarantine and return home due to Covid complications – but not on a cruise,” she says. “I have truly lost faith in these insurance companies and frankly, sometimes the price is as high as the trip itself, depending on the client’s age.”
“Book now to grab that deal”
So what’s a travel agent to do when they have a client wanting to book a cruise but there’s a cruise advisory still in place?
Marilyn Stainer, a Cruise and Travel Consultant with Independent by Flight Centre, tells Travelweek that she is only booking refundable fares “so my clients will be protected in case something happens.”
Stainer herself is booked on a cruise departing in 2023, which she says is already sold out.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand for cruising from all the Future Cruise Credits so I am advising my clients to book now as ships will sell out, causing rates to go up and availability to go down,” she says.
Penney offers the same advice to his clients, even those who are thinking about a cruise a year or longer out.
“There are so many amazing offers for cruise clients right now with so much flexibility. Book now to grab that deal and if they change their mind later, under most terms, the deposits are fully refundable so there’s nothing for them to lose. We know the prices are definitely going to increase as we get closer to sailing and there will be less and less options available,” says Penney.
Archambault adds that in addition to booking early, make sure to read the fine print.
“The advice that I’m giving clients right now is this: book far in advance and ensure that the deposit is 100% refundable,” she says. “We will look at the situation prior to final payment or before any part of the trip becomes non-refundable.”