Travel agents look back on one unthinkable, unprecedented year amid the COVID-19 pandemic

TORONTO — The travel industry has been through the unthinkable, and so far it has survived. But the end can’t come soon enough.

One year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, travel retailers and suppliers are still in a holding pattern, waiting for travel to restart in earnest. Amid the losses over the past year, there are much bigger concerns than future trips and vacations. But livelihoods are at stake, and that’s why the travel industry is so invested in getting travel started again.

March 11, 2021 is an anniversary no one wanted to mark, and few would have thought possible back in those early chaotic days of March 2020, when the WHO declared a pandemic and then, two days later on March 13, 2020, the eve of March Break, Canada issued its advisory against all non-essential travel.

Since then travel agents and suppliers have been on  roller coaster of restrictions and reopenings, from 14-day quarantines and lack of insurance for COVID-19, to an all-too-brief respite in summer with its slight uptick in travel (but mostly domestic), and then a second wave, 72-hour PCR test requirements, 3-night hotel quarantines and the complete suspension of winter sun flights.

The retail travel sector is known for its optimism, and even in these challenging days there is a feeling of buoyancy as vaccinations rollout across the country, and the world.

There are also wins. ACTA is in talks with the Ministry of Finance about how, not if, travel agents will have their commissions protected with the airline industry bailout.

And ACITA is sharing news of the motion tabled this week in the House of Commons by members of the Opposition calling for support for sectors including travel and tourism.

ACITA co-founder Judith Coates, who sent video of the comments from MPs, was thrilled. “We are pumped, because it was very evident that our voices are being heard!” said Coates. “These were all MPs that we’ve had Zoom meetings with. We are thrilled that they have been listening.” ACITA has had Zoom call meetings with more than 170 MPs, alerting them to the $200 million in commission recalls travel agents face with mass refunds in the airline industry bailout (scroll down for the video).

 

 

The motion passed 183 – 159, added Coates. “We think that this will be the huge push that the Liberals need to get on with the bailout agreements, and we know that the Opposition parties will keep them accountable.”

Travelweek checked in with travel agents across the country to see how they’re faring at the 1-year mark. We also asked them where they want to travel when restrictions lift. Here’s what they said…

 

Lise Archambault, Travel Agent and Cruise Specialist, Algonquin Travel & Cruise Centre – TravelPlus, Ottawa, ON

“I’ve kept in close contact with my clients over the past year and all of them are ready to spring into action. However, none want to get caught up in that airport quarantine situation so that will have to be lifted.  Surprisingly, high end cruising is top of the list.  Clients have tons of future travel credits and they are anxious to cash them in. Many cruise lines (and some tour operators) are emailing agents with webinars and urged to invite their clients to attend.  My travellers are eating this up.  Every time I forward an invitation, I receive several rsvp’s and excellent feedback.

“I want to fly to Barbados for two weeks, stay in a 5-Star resort in the Gold Coast area, dine on flying fish and swim the beach of Sandy Lane.”

 

Gary Rams, Adventure Travel Specialist, Associated with Crowfoot Travel Solutions, Calgary, AB

“I believe travel will start later this summer. It will be to some areas at first and once other counties get their population vaccinated we will see it really take off. For those not travelling this summer or fall, they will be planning their vacations for 2022. Countries like Vietnam and Thailand are looking to open up to tourism this summer for people who have been vaccinated.

“I have seen interest in some bucket list destinations like India and Chile and they are interested in a more soft adventure style of travel with social awareness being front and centre.

“Once travel starts and it is safe for me and the local people in these countries I will be heading to four places. I have a year to make up. Vietnam but in the North, Thailand followed by Peru and India. I would also like to go to Mazatlan for a week. After that, the list keeps growing.”

 

Gilbert Manza, Owner, Executive Travel Services Inc., Woodbridge, ON

“I am getting a few sporadic inquiries for later this year however because this is a global pandemic I don’t really see things getting much better until the whole world has this under control. The vaccination rollout will help however the variants have me concerned that this thing may linger on more than we would like.

“I personally will not travel this year, too many hassles with quarantines etc. I do look forward to the day we can all get back to normal but the reality especially for our industry it maybe a couple of years to get back to pre pandemic times.”

 

Scott M. Penney, CTA, Travel Advisor, The Travel Agent Next Door, Dartmouth, NS

“I have been receiving more and more inquiries for late 2022 and have booked quite a few clients for travel in 2023. The offers and promotions that are available now are fantastic and the winners definitely will be these clients who are prepared to book now for future travel. I have some concerns for clients who want to wait longer as I feel we may see prices increase as it starts to pick up and the availability becomes less, especially initially due to COVID and suppliers’ reduced capacity. I am encouraging my clients who are inquiring now to book because the flexibility with the offers from suppliers are so good right now, they really have nothing to lose!

“I had planned to be on a river cruise in November but not sure it will happen right now. But I plan on escorting a group of clients to the Middle East next fall and I’m very excited for that.  However, I hope that I can get a south Caribbean beach getaway in next winter as I really missed my beach break this year!”

 

Joe Scott, President, Year Round Travel Inc., North York, ON

Initially we thought we’d lose our spring and summer seasons and be back to business by fall 2020, however as things currently stand, fall, winter, spring and summer are a write-off for 2021. We sincerely hope that with the vaccine rollout globally that we may see some business in the late fall, but I honestly think it will only be a fraction of the volume of business we did in 2019. But we’ve got to start somewhere! It’ll still take some time before the majority of the travelling public have enough confidence to comfortably start travelling again.

In terms of business, we’ve had a few clients attempt to travel this winter but ultimately with the government restrictions they eventually decided against their trips. We’re working on a few groups at the moment, however they won’t materialize until spring 2022.

Personally, I’d be more than happy to redo all my missed trips from 2020, which included Hawaii, spring skiing in Banff, Las Vegas, Montreal F1 Grand Prix, Montebello and USA F1 Grand Prix in Austin, Texas – and this was only what was already planned!

 

Ocean Phi Long Le, Manager, Bodad Travel, Toronto, ON

“Many of my clients are itching to travel again and have been asking me when the borders will open up. These are clients that have not seen family for over a year and also haven’t vacation who often make multiple trips in a year. Of course they want to be responsible and careful to ensure everyone’s safety and looking forward to the vaccine and potentially a vaccinated passport. Many are optimistic but also realistic and see their travel commencing in 2022 and normal travel not until 2023.

“Those that are travelling this year have booked domestic travel to Alberta and the Canadian Rockies. Most of my 2021 bookings have been domestic as Canadians will seek adventure and R&R within our borders.

“I’ve just booked my own holidays to Nova Scotia with a 2 week quarantine in a cottage by the ocean. After which time it’s all about exploring little fishing villages, white sand beaches and the best lobsters Nova Scotia has to offer to name a few.

“Internationally, my clients are excited to get back to Mexico and the D.R. at their favourite all-inclusive who have created incredible steps to ensure everyone’s safety to prevent COVID-19. Myself, I’m excited to book a southern France road trip to visit their chateaux and wineries.”

 

Jennifer McPherson, Travel Specialist, TurnKey Travel, Dundas, ON

“People will want to explore the world again and I can already see the pent up demand with a lot of my clients. Many have started to rebook with their travel credits and even put deposits on additional trips. Admittedly though, most want to look at 2022 and beyond as they still want to wait until they are vaccinated.

“I have had inquiries for domestic travel this summer, particularly out West but I feel that the world is still months away from opening up. This summer will be a test-run where countries or provinces will try ‘travel bubbles’ to allow residents to visit but there is still a lot of logistical work (ie. vaccination documentation, rapid testing, airport processes, monitoring) that needs to happen before we return to the types of levels pre-pandemic.

“I can’t wait to travel again when it’s safe and responsible to do so! We have to remember that although Canada, the U.S. and other Western countries may be rolling out vaccinations aggressively, other nations are not as fortunate, and that we can still transmit the virus after we have been vaccinated.  So we need to find that balance between being responsible when traveling to developing countries or remote areas, and supporting them economically – both could be life or death situations for some. Travel will still include these COVID protocols of distancing, masks, cleaning for a long time to come.

“Clients are inquiring about small group travel, adventure/outdoor itineraries and river/small vessel cruising. Personally, I just booked our family for next May on G Adventures’ Galapagos Multisport tour with the Amazon extension because I have two teenagers and it’s good to be active. Choosing a less populated area, lots of time outdoors and staying in one country, were things I looked for in planning our first trip. I want to continue to inspire and inform my clients, and I’ll be here for them when they decide it’s a good time for them to resume travel.”

 

Kathryn Folliott