Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Happy New Year? Not so fast.
In the late afternoon of Dec. 31, hours before the 2021 ball dropped, the Canadian government pulled a fast one on the travel industry, officially announcing a new travel rule that requires all international passengers entering Canada to have a negative PCR test taken 72 hours prior to arrival.
The order, which officially kicks in this Thurs., Jan. 7, appeared to have come out of left field.
Canadian airlines, responding to informal mentions of the news on Dec. 30, took to Twitter to explain to customers how they weren’t consulted on the matter, a claim that Mike McNaney, President and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, later confirmed.
READ MORE: All air travellers entering Canada will need negative pre-departure COVID test starting Jan. 7
Essentially, starting Thursday, air passengers five years of age or older will be responsible for obtaining their own negative polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) test, in destination, before travelling from another country to Canada.
Documentation of this test must be presented to the airline prior to boarding and travellers that do not have a test result (when there are clinics available) will be denied boarding, Canada’s Minister of Transport Marc Garneau told CBC News.
Travellers that can prove that they were unable to get the test abroad will be able to board, but will have to quarantine at a federally-approved facility upon their return to Canada for 14 days, said Garneau.
The Minister said the new rule was introduced in response to the new variant of COVID-19 that was reported in the United Kingdom.
While a negative test will grant entry into Canada, all travellers are still legally required to complete a 14-day quarantine, an order that has been in place since March.
Companies left scrambling
The policy tightens Canada’s already-strict travel restrictions, and with just a week’s notice, airlines and tour operators started the new year scrambling to help travellers and travel agents prepare.
In a statement issued on Dec. 31, Minister Garneau said the Jan. 7 start date provides airlines with "adequate time" to comply, but a quick glance at social media over the weekend told another story.
The team at Air Canada Vacations clearly hit the ground running on New Year’s Eve Friday night and worked straight into the weekend, posting updates and fielding questions from travel agents on a private Facebook page for the trade.
By Sat., Jan. 2, ACV had posted a detailed list of in-destination labs that offer PCR testing so travel agents, many of which responded to the document with heart and hand-clapping emojis, could properly advise their travelling clients.
The cost of PCR testing varies between destinations with facilities each showing different hours of operation and processing times.
(PCR testing is a method that detects if someone has COVID-19, typically by inserting a swab into a person’s nose or throat).
Transport Canada expects people to cover the cost of getting tested (although, travellers should contact their travel insurance provider, regardless, just to see if there's options).
At this time, proof of vaccination does not replace a negative test result, says Transport Canada.
A PCR test in Cuba, for example, may run you up $30-40 (all prices in U.S. dollars), whereas a test in Jamaica can cost anywhere between $143 and $232.
Most destinations seem to hover in the $90-$180 range.
Los Cabos seems to have some of the most expensive prices, with one clinic reportedly charging as high as $538 dollars (!) for a single test (although, according to some agents, there are clinics with cheaper options).
This doesn’t even factor in the potential cost of a taxi or transfer bus to a local facility.
Transport Canada is collaborating
In a company statement to PAX, Sunwing, which resumed flights to the Caribbean and Mexico on Nov. 6, said it will be transparent with customers to “ensure their experience is as frictionless as possible.”
“Sunwing representatives are available in destination to provide support, including helping customers find a PCR testing facility, along with arranging transportation to and from the facility, if required,” the company said.
Sunwing reiterated how the aviation industry was not consulted on the policy, but said that it has seen a “collaborative approach” from Transport Canada in building a regulatory framework around the new testing requirements.
“From an airline perspective, we have also been advocating for a national inbound rapid testing strategy as a means of reducing quarantine requirements,” said Sunwing. “We hope to see more widespread rapid testing in the near future, as this is a key element to the travel industry’s rebound.”
Either way, travel is about to get more expensive and complex, presenting a range of new challenges for an already-battered industry.
"Disappointed" by lack of consultation
“We were surprised by the announcement and disappointed by the lack of consultation with the travel industry,” Wendy Paradis, president at Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), told PAX. “The time period for implementation is extremely short and the operational challenges to apply the new measures are significant.”
The fact that Canadians, even with a negative COVID-19 test in hand, still have to quarantine for 14 days upon returning from a trip is particularly problematic for selling travel.
Paradis noted how ACTA has been advocating to the government “for months” to develop science-based programs for rapid testing “that would keep Canadians safe and reduce the 14-day quarantine,” saying that “intense lobbying efforts” will continue.
The "worst of both worlds"
On Saturday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expressed "deep frustration" with Canada’s new travel rule, calling the policy the “worst of both worlds.”
READ MORE: "Callous and impractical": IATA blasts Canada's new COVID-19 testing requirement
Taking the position that testing at borders is a viable option to replace the quarantine, IATA recommended Canada put the policy on hold until it could develop a clear roadmap to safely reopen borders with a realistic timeline.
"It is both callous and impractical to impose this new requirement on travellers at such short notice," IATA said. "Moreover, it is completely unrealistic to mandate that airlines check passengers’ compliance with the new rule, as it cannot be the airline’s role to determine if a passenger tried their utmost to get tested or not."
Gregory Luciani, President and CEO at TravelOnly, said he wasn’t surprised by the Trudeau government’s announcement.
“It was only a matter of time,” Luciani told PAX.
How will this new policy impact the way travel agents sell travel? “More work with no pay. More red tape and liability,” he said. “The Trudeau government has failed the industry since day one.”
The team at the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), an advocacy group formed in June to inform politicians about the challenges self-employed travel agents are facing amid the pandemic, said the new rule has sent the industry “into a tailspin.”
“With no warning in place, people who had chosen to travel over the New Year were not given the opportunity to cancel or change their trips,” leaders Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door, Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach and Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly said in a group statement.
They said the timing “could not have been worse” as tour operators were closed from mid-day on the 31st until January 4th.
The group questions Ottawa’s decision to require a PCR test 72 hours prior, which has caused suppliers and resorts to offer solutions, only later to be told that there will be an "approved" list provided by the Canadian Government.
“If people are travelling home on the 8th of January, where is this approved list?” the group said. “Travellers and travel advisors are confused and left scrambling to get answers.”
“We are not sure that this is helping our industry recover, it seems to be having the opposite effect.”
“Unrealistic & disastrous”
Flemming Friisdahl, founder and CEO of The Travel Agent Next Door, said he agrees with having measures in place to ensure that travellers entering Canada aren’t making others sick.
However, speaking on the new pre-departure testing requirements, “there are many other ways to achieve the same objective,” he said, referencing Alberta’s pilot project, which aims to reduce quarantine times by offering COVID-19 testing at select entry points at the border.
Friisdahl is also concerned about the “heavy cost” the new policy will put on travel.
“In some places, the test is costing over $240 USD per person, so for a family of five, you are looking at close to $1,600 CDN to get tested,” he said.
And then there’s cruising, an industry that is preparing for a 2021 relaunch. “How will you be able to get tested while on a ship?” Friisdahl wondered.
Zeina Gedeon, CEO of Travel Professionals International (TPI), said the new requirement will “only make a bad situation even worse.”
“We have been calling on the government to implement rapid testing, reduce quarantine and this is what they come up with!?” Gedeon said, expressing frustration and disappointment.
Gedeon said the year-over-year decline in travel and tourism’s contribution amounts to more than $21 billion dollars with more than 280,000 jobs at risk (in Canada).
“The light we started seeing when the vaccine was announced is getting smaller and things are starting to look grim again,” she said, calling Ottawa’s new restriction “unrealistic and disastrous” to the economy.
“We need the government to put a well-balanced and well-planned strategy in place to manage the testing and open the borders.”
Risks on top of risks
For some Canadian travel agents, the news comes as another blow to rebuilding business.
Richmond Hill, ON-based Teodor Mihail of Unravel World Travel was “shocked” by the news, especially in light of the success Alberta’s pilot project has shown so far.
He said the federal government has made the situation (of selling travel) worse, suggesting that customers will avoid international trips altogether for not wanting to “face the added inconvenience of getting tested in order to come home.”
“I feel that the government is completely against travel and wants to shut down the industry while other countries are making progress in relaunching travel,” Mihail told PAX.
Mihail said Ottawa is “sleeping” on the topic of safely relaunching the travel economy.
“I don’t see anything happening until the summer, which is very concerning,” he said.
He would like to see Alberta’s pilot project expanded across the country or see a policy whereby Canadians could submit to rapid testing or quarantining for 14 days with tourists being required to present a negative test to avoid quarantine.
“Other countries have done this since the summer and tourism is booming in those countries,” said Mihail.
Some travel agents have stopping selling travel altogether in the face of ongoing risks and restrictions.
Cambridge, ON-based Caitlin Lajeunesse, of Vacations by Caitlin - Independent by Flight Centre, said she hasn’t had a client in the air since March 18, 2020.
She calls the entire situation “very fluid.”
“I continue to work on my business, my brand, service my clients and inspire travel, but there is too much uncertainty for me to confidently have my clients travelling right now,” she said, adding that she hopes the government “will start to understand the devastation we are in.”
Justin Clarey of Marlin Travel in Port Hope, ON, said he’s “torn” between what he thinks is the right thing to do for the pandemic versus the right thing to do for keeping the industry alive.
“Requiring Canadians to obtain tests in foreign countries or denying them boarding seems to be too extreme,” Clarey told PAX.
He, too, is currently advising against travel.
“There’s too many risks now on top of the risk of getting sick,” Clarey said. “For all the things the airlines, tour operators and resorts have done to make things safe, it’s all for nothing with the cost and process of obtaining tests prior to returning.”
The added cost of obtaining a test will be a “huge deterrent” for travellers, he said, “and frankly, will be the nail in the coffin for many agents, agencies and I think even tour operators.”
“The only people who can really accept these risks are people with lots of money and likely retired,” said Clarey. “Even people with good jobs couldn’t just get stuck for two, three extra weeks.”
Okotoks, AB-based Dave Heron of Pace Setter Travel & Tours said he wasn’t surprised by Canada’s new policy, given the rising cases counts of COVID-19 and discovery of a new variant.
Heron said the new rule will have less of an impact on business, right now, given that most of his clientele likely won’t travel until later in the year.
“Going forward, however, fewer consumers are going to take comfort with current policies regarding ‘change your plans with a future travel credit’ coupled with insurance companies’ current stance on ‘no claim where a future voucher is in play,’” he said. “And that is going to make things exceptionally difficult for tour operators and cruise lines to plan a restart in 2021.”
Heron suspects there will be a number of Canadian travellers returning home from beach destinations after Jan. 7 who were unable to obtain the required test results.
“Mandating that these folks, prior to returning to their homes, will have to endure a 14-day stay in a federally-designated quarantine site perhaps needs a re-think,” said Heron.
“Staying at a quickly-assembled, repurposed hotel with a couple of hundred other folks is perhaps not quite as smart as staying home in isolation for 14 days.”
Sharon Loppie, owner of Time2Travel in Dartmouth, NS, said she spoke to some of her customers about the new policy and said that of the ones who were ready to book a trip (with the promise of a vaccine rollout), they’re now saying “no way” to travel.
“They’re nervous about getting the results getting back in time, and [the fact that it may] interrupt their vacation – all at their own expense,” Loppie told PAX.
“This announcement certainly adds more hesitancy for travellers who might have been considering booking travel for 2021.”
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