TORONTO — The plight of travel agents amid the pandemic, and the months and months of hard work and dedication by the retail travel sector, have not gone unnoticed by the federal government. That’s the good news.
The bad news? It doesn’t sound as though the current travel restrictions will be dropped May 1.
That’s the word from ACITA co-founder Judith Coates, who co-hosted ACITA’s Zoom call yesterday with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.
Attendance on the Zoom call, with 100 travel advisors, maxed out Zoom’s limit. Another 40 were on a waiting list.
As Coates tells Travelweek, ACITA didn’t ask Transport Minister Omar Alghabra point-blank what travel might look like on May 1, the day after the current suspension of winter sun flights is set to end.
Says Coates: “In our presentation, I give a hypothetical: ‘Assuming, optimistically, that travel will open up on May 1 if the current travel restrictions are lifted, and if a client made a booking with us on May 1, we would not receive any revenue from that booking until as early as mid October, or more realistically, as late as May 2022’.”
Minister Alghabra tackled the May 1 issue right off the bat.
“It was the first comment he made to us,” says Coates. “He said, ’Travel measures are temporary for sure but I don’t want you to think that by May 1 they will be lifted. The decisions about when to start to lift these measures will be guided by Public Health’.”
He also said: “I know you want me to stop saying now is not the time to travel but I don’t think I can say that to you today.”
Winter sun flights were suspended Jan. 31 after a Jan. 29 announcement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that all four of Canada’s major airlines – Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing and Transat – had agreed to a request from the federal government to temporarily halt the flights. The move was made just a month into winter in an effort to clamp down on leisure travel to popular sun destinations.
Meanwhile Canada’s 72-hour PCR test rule has been in place since Jan. 7, and the 3-day hotel quarantine rule, also announced Jan. 29, came into effect Feb. 22.
In recent days airlines including Air Canada and WestJet have been adding more flights to their schedules, with at least three sun flights to Bridgetown (Barbados), Kingston (Jamaica) and Mexico City on the schedule for Air Canada starting in May. Meanwhile WestJet has said it intends to fly internationally this summer, and last week WestJet execs noted that the airline had asked the government to phase out the 3-day hotel requirement starting May 1.
Coates says Minister Alghabra cited data that shows that the additional measures introduced since January have reduced COVID importation by 90%. However Coates says the stats she saw indicated that as of January, cases due to travel were 1%, with 0.5% due to contact with someone else travelling. “So not much of a change due to travel restrictions,” she notes.
Coates tells Travelweek that Minister Alghabra said the work done by ACITA and its members “should be applauded”, adding “your experience is understood by many.”
Minister Alghabra also noted that “when COVID arrived it did not come with an instruction manual”, and that “the travel industry has been an unfortunate victim.”
The financial assistance package for Canada’s travel industry, said to be in its final phase of discussion, is now with the Ministry of Finance. For travel agents, reports from ACTA have indicated that the talks are now at the ‘how’, not ‘if’ stage in terms of commission protection for Canada’s travel agents.
Coates says Minister Alghabra “seemed genuinely concerned when we showed him how Independent Travel Advisors are falling through the cracks with regards to federal and provincial funding programs, and he invited us to stay in touch and provide his office with information on an ongoing basis.”
ACITA’s March 29 Zoom meeting with Minister Alghabra is opening doors to more requests for meetings, says Coates, including outreach from Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland‘s office and her Senior Policy Advisor, inviting ACITA to a meeting today, March 30. ACITA has also been invited by the Clerk of the Standing Committee on Finance, to appear as witnesses at their upcoming meeting on April 1.