TORONTO — Over the course of the past 10 days the travel industry has gotten word about the reopening of the U.S. land border, the implementation of Canada’s vaccine passport for international travel, and – best of all – the elimination of the Canada’s blanket travel advisory in favour of country-specific advisories.
Agents were told months ago not to wait for a ‘light switch moment’ amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, and that was good advice.
But after more than a year and a half of this pandemic, if there was ever a light switch moment for travel’s restart, this is it.
Late yesterday the federal government dropped its travel advisory against all non-essential outside of Canada, for fully vaccinated Canadians.
The news came hours after Prime Minister Trudeau announced, as indicated back in September from the campaign trail, that federal certification for international travel for fully vaccinated Canadians would piggyback on provincial vaccine passports.
With the elimination of the blanket travel advisory, in place since March 2020, the system now reverts back to the familiar country-specific list of advisories.
Travel industry execs and organizations have been calling for this move for months, which opens up more availability for travel insurance coverage, and will get many more Canadians travelling again.
That’s the good news, the great news, the fantastic news. After more than 18 months, Canada’s travel industry is coming back.
“This is a well overdue announcement, not just for us as an international tour operator, but for all the travel agents whose livelihoods depend on selling international travel. Canada has been world-leading in terms of having our citizens vaccinated, and now we can be world-leading in encouraging people to start travelling again, and to safely support communities around the world that have been devastated by the lack of tourism these past 18 months,” says G Adventures founder, Bruce Poon Tip.
HERE ARE THE HURDLES
There are still hurdles, of course. The cruise advisory remains in place, at a Level 4 (‘Avoid all cruise ship travel outside Canada until further notice’).
Cruise bookings and commissions are a major revenue stream for the retail travel sector, and as travel advisors including Expedia Cruises agent Jacqui Bradley and others have pointed out, a Level 4 makes it near impossible for clients to get travel insurance coverage.
ACTA President Wendy Paradis says that ACTA is happy to see the blanket travel advisory go, and wants the cruise advisory updated too.
“We are pleased the government has returned to a risk-based approach to travel advisories for fully-vaccinated travellers,” said Paradis. “This approach follows the recommendations ACTA and Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable partners have been making to government officials and ministers for many months now.”
She adds: “The lifting of the global travel advisory is a significant win for travellers, travel agents and the entire Canadian travel industry. However, it is disappointing that the blanket advisory against all cruise ship travel remains for fully-vaccinated travellers. Cruise line operators have proven that safe cruise travel is feasible. We continue to call on the federal government to lift the cruise advisory for fully-vaccinated travellers, recognizing the incredible efforts cruise lines have taken to follow strict government-mandated health and safety protocols.”
Another hurdle: the still-mandatory PCR testing for anyone arriving in or returning to Canada. “This is a significant barrier to travellers, including families and seniors, and ACTA urges the government to modernize pre-departure testing in accordance with the recommendation of the COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel,” said Paradis.
Meanwhile many Canadians with young kids will put travel plans on hold until Health Canada approves the Pfizer vaccine for kids. As Trudeau noted yesterday, Health Canada’s review process is currently underway, and Canada has more than enough vaccine supply coming to fully vaccinate all children 5 – 11 years old.
SOLVENCY WORRIES REMAIN FOR MANY
But the biggest hurdle of all isn’t a travel restriction. It’s still-worrying solvency concerns for retail agents, particularly independent travel agents.
CRB ends tomorrow (Oct. 23) and it’s been a lifeline for independent agents especially throughout the pandemic.
At yesterday’s briefing Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced new financial aid programs, including a Tourism & Hospitality Support program and a Hardest Hit Recovery Program, with wage subsidies and rent assistance. Both run Oct. 24, 2021 – May 7, 2022.
There’s also a new ‘Lockdown Benefit’ of $300 per week, for workers “subject to a lockdown”, and designed for those who aren’t eligible for EI, said Freeland.
However the Lockdown Benefit is designed as a one-off program for unexpected lockdown situations, not as ongoing support.
As Freeland explained the new ‘Tourism & Hospitality Support’ program, she said, “we’re talking here for hoteliers, restaurateurs and travel agencies” – but that won’t work for independent agents.
Travelweek contacted ACITA founder Judith Coates for her take.
“From our understanding, Trudeau and Freeland’s announcement of extended financial assistance provides no help to Independent Travel Advisors, who are now left with zero government aid, now that the CRB is ended,” said Coates, adding that more will become clear when the final details are released.
And with the exception of tour operators who have transitioned to an upfront commission model, commissions aren’t typically paid until clients travel.
That’s another concern, as Coates notes.
“The announcement of the lifting of the blanket travel advisory is welcome and long awaited news, however ACITA continues to remind its members that we need to continue to drive the point home to MPs that we do not see revenue until 5 to 11 months past the lifting of any travel advisories,” she said.
“Yes, our clients will now have more confidence in booking travel, but because of our delayed revenue stream, we will not be paid for those bookings until travel takes place and we know that most trips are booked six to 12 months in advance. Many independent travel advisors are barely hanging on by a thread.”
Coates adds that she’s hoping that on Nov. 1, 2021, when the cruise ban in Canadian waters is scheduled to lift, that the Level 4 cruise advisory will also be lowered: “Cruise ships are now one of the safest places to be!”