TORONTO — If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the unexpected can happen at a moment’s notice.
As we saw repeatedly since March 2020, a singular event can set off a chain reaction of government advisories, grounded airplanes, closed airports and the frenzied repatriation of travellers.
But it’s not just the arrival of a new virus (and its many variants thereafter) that can trigger such a response, as recent violence in Mazatlan, Mexico has proven.
Though certainly not on the same level as a global pandemic, the aftermath of Mazatlan’s wave of violence earlier this month following the arrest of an alleged cartel leader, led to a swift response by the Canadian government, including a non-essential travel advisory to several areas in Mexico and a shelter-in-place advisory for Canadians in destination. Mazatlan’s airport and others in the area were forced to close, leading Sunwing and WestJet to temporarily cancel operations to and from the destination.
This, of course, forced Canadians in destination to scramble for alternative flights home. Many were stranded for days, barricaded in their hotels amid the civil unrest, some sleeping in hotel lobbies while waiting for recovery flights to return them to Canada.
Their harrowing ordeal once again emphasised the importance of travel insurance, which according to Will McAleer, Executive Director of the Travel Health Insurance Association of Canada (THIA), has seen a resurgence among travellers following the pandemic years.
“While THIA does not collect data on sales rates of our members, many are reporting a much higher rate of sales given the increased awareness of the need for travel insurance,” he tells Travelweek. “According to a study released by one member (conducted by Ipsos), 89% of Canadians planning a trip intend to be covered by travel insurance for their trip. This compares to a 2021 Leger panel survey indicating only 52% of Canadians planned to purchase travel insurance when travelling.”
Now that the situation in Mazatlan has stabilized, airports have reopened and flights have resumed, we asked McAleer what travellers can learn should similar events occur while abroad:
For the travellers who were in Mazatlan at the time, can you walk us through what they should have done in the immediate aftermath?
“In situations where there appear to be unsafe conditions, the first step should be to ensure you quickly find shelter or evacuate according to local direction. From there, contact your tour operator or travel insurance company to determine the guidance that is being offered. Then, arrange evacuation or alternate transportation based on the specific nature of the emergency, whether that be violence in the area or in the event of a medical emergency.”
How does a government-issued travel advisory affect an existing travel insurance policy? Does an advisory alter and/or cancel any elements of the coverage?
“A government travel advisory can impact travel insurance policies in a number of ways. For Trip Cancellation/Interruption policies, it will trigger benefits under the cancellation or interruption benefits if the advisory is at a level 3 (avoid non-essential travel) or Level 4 (avoid all travel) when issued during the trip or is active on the date of travel. Note that policies will not allow coverage for travel to destinations listed with these advisories active on the date of booking the insurance.
“The impact of a level 3 or 4 advisory from the Government of Canada on emergency medical travel insurance may depend on the policy the traveller purchased. Coverage may remain in effect when an elevated advisory is issued, while some plans may provide a time limit for insureds to return home, after which the coverage would cease. This was the case in some policies when the COVID-19 pandemic began, with many Canadians needing to return home based on the direction provided by the Canadian government.
“It is important to note that many insurers have since revised wording to allow continued coverage for emergency medical coverage in the event of a Level 3 Travel Advisory. It underscores the need for travellers to understand the policies they are purchasing prior to departure and make sure to select the coverage that meets their needs.
“In the case of the recent advisories for parts of Mexico, the Level 3 Advisory to avoid non-essential travel is a regional advisory and does not include some popular destination cities on the Yucatan peninsula like Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel. The newer advisory does include several States including Sinaloa, which includes the popular tourist city of Mazatlan. However, the regional advisory (as of Jan. 12, 2023) does not include the city of Mazatlan, nor does the advisory to the State of Colima include the popular city of Manzanillo. As a result, travel to these destinations would need to be included within the specific advisory to allow a claim on a travel insurance policy.”
Are there travel insurance policies that specifically cover in-destination violence and/or travel advisories, as we just saw in Mazatlan?
“Generally speaking, there are no coverages available for situations where government advisories are already in place. Should an advisory arise while on vacation, coverage will be in place for most policies if you are impacted by violence such as that seen in some regions of Mexico.
“To properly select the right insurance for a planned trip, THIA recommends that Canadians do the following to have carefree vacations:
- Know your Policy: Insurance providers have staff available to answer any questions related to policies, including medical conditions and limitations
- Know your Health: Ensure you know any medical conditions you have and make sure to answer any applications for insurance correctly
- Know your Trip: How long will you be gone? Where are you going and is there an advisory currently in place? Are you a snowbird? Will you be travelling many times during the year? Do you plan to scuba dive? Some policies will be more suitable for you than others
- Know your Rights: Travel insurance policies are issued and most will include provisions contained in THIA’s Rights and Responsibilities guidelines including the right to review application questionnaires and the right to appeal decisions, where additional information may be provided to ensure the correct decision is made related to all claims on policies.”
Is it possible to purchase travel insurance if travel occurs when an advisory is in place?
“It is not possible to purchase travel insurance for risks that are known to the insured, since travel insurance is designed to protect travellers from unexpected emergencies or events related to a planned trip or during travel. Once an advisory is in effect, the event is known to the insured and thus, not insurable. It is important to remind travellers to purchase their travel insurance as soon as possible (ideally, at the time of booking the trip) and prior to travel. This will ensure travellers are protected in the case of changing risks associated with the destination or in-transit disruptions.”
Some travellers still prefer to opt out of travel insurance. What tips do you have for travel agents to help sway their clients to invest?
“THIA would suggest that beyond the offer of a travel insurance policy would be to ask a few questions when posed with any objection to ensuring they are covered on a trip:
- If a medical emergency were to happen while away, what would their government plan cover? Perhaps surprising to many, provincial programs will cover only a small percentage of the overall cost of a medical emergency (5-8% perhaps). With most Canadians travelling into the U.S. where healthcare is as expensive as it gets, costs could range upwards of $10,000 per day or more for a code blue emergency. Remember as well, this could be due to a sickness or injury while pursuing an active vacation.
- In the event of a significant medical emergency, how would you get back home? No matter where a medical emergency occurs (Caribbean or Europe) each insurance policy has a team of medical experts to ensure you are not only looked after but that if you need to get home, all arrangements and air transportation (commercial or via air ambulance) are coordinated and paid for under the travel insurance policy. If you are not able to coordinate, your client would be left having to attempt to do this – and paying additional hospitalization costs for the additional time in the hospital – until you are able to arrange.
- Would you have enough cash on hand to cover a $40,000 medical emergency, or would you be okay paying the entire cost of the trip if you could not go on your trip at the last minute? What would you do if you needed to return home because of an emergency during your trip? It would not only cost a lot more than the scheduled return flight, but you would also not likely get a refund for the unused part of the vacation. For a small amount of the overall cost, protection can be provided in the form of travel insurance.”
What’s the biggest takeaway from Mazatlan that all travellers should know?
“While we all are aware that your health (either due to an illness or accident) can change in an instant, disruptions at destination resulting in unsafe conditions can also occur extremely fast. Making sure you have contact numbers at hand and plans should an emergency happen is vital when travelling. Take the time to understand where your emergency evacuation routes are in case of a fire at a hotel and make sure to follow local direction in the event of a disruption, like the one seen in Mazatlan. Also, you can register with the Canadian Government’s website for “Registration of Canadians Abroad” so that you can be notified before or during a natural disaster or period of civil unrest. This will also allow the Canadian government to know you are in the region, should it be prolonged. Beyond this, make sure you have an assistance team behind you as part of your travel insurance policy.”
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