Hundreds of thousands of Canadians are travelling abroad despite Omicron
In December, more than 700,000 Canadian air passenger arrivals returned home from international travel
Despite growing concerns across the globe last fall over the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, Sandy Long and her husband departed on Nov. 28 for a 10-day vacation in Mexico.
Long said they felt comfortable travelling, because they planned to take strict safety precautions. Plus, the couple hadn't gone abroad for two years due to the pandemic and were yearning to get away.
"Life is short," said Long, 58, of Richmond, B.C. "We needed to feel some warmth [and] we really missed Mexico."
It appears many Canadians have a similar attitude toward travel these days despite Omicron's fast and furious spread, which prompted Canada to repost its advisory against non-essential international travel last month.
Statistics Canada tallied 742,417 Canadian air-passenger arrivals returning home from abroad in December.
When adjusted to account for recent changes in tracking air travel, that total is almost six times the number of arrivals for the same month in 2020, and more than half the total for pre-pandemic December 2019.
The increase in international travel is likely to continue: there were 216,752 Canadian air-passenger arrivals to Canada during the week of Jan. 3 to Jan. 9, according to the latest data posted by the Canada Border Services Agency.
Travel agency owner Lesley Keyter said that since October, the number of clients booking trips has jumped by between 30 and 40 per cent compared with the same time last year.
She said popular destinations for her clients, most of whom are aged 50 or older, include Europe, Mexico and Costa Rica. When Omicron cases started to surge in December, Keyter said some clients cancelled their trip, but most kept their travel plans.
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"People are saying, "Listen, we only have a limited time on this planet.… We've put off travel for two years now, I don't want to put it off anymore," said Keyter, owner of The Travel Lady Agency in Calgary.
She said travellers also feel confident with the added protection of their COVID-19 vaccine and booster shot. Because Omicron is so transmissible and more able to evade vaccines, even vaccinated people may get infected. However, they're less likely to wind up in the hospital.
Risk of testing positive abroad
But even if infected travellers only experience mild symptoms, they'll still face hurdles returning home.
To enter Canada, air passengers must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure. If a traveller tests positive, they must wait at least 11 days before boarding a flight home.
Brennan Watson, 26, of Milverton, Ont., tested positive on Dec. 28 while travelling in Northern Ireland.
He was set to fly home the following day, but instead had to find a place to self-isolate in Belfast. Due to Canada's rules at the time — which have now changed — Watson had to wait 15 days before he could fly home.
"It was very stressful in the beginning," he said. "It was a bit of a panic just to think that I'm stuck here."
Brennan said the delay cost him: he missed 11 days of work as an electrician and spent $2,000 in added expenses, including another plane ticket home.
"There's nothing you can really do about it," he said. "It's just something I didn't even think would happen."
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Travel insurance broker Martin Firestone said travellers can avoid such unexpected costs by purchasing trip-interruption insurance. He said most of his clients now opt for the coverage that will reimburse travellers for some or all of their costs if they test positive and must extend their trip.
"Trip interruption — which used to be a very rarely [purchased product] — is now being added to all the emergency medical plans, because clients worry terribly about testing positive," said Firestone with Travel Secure.
"That's the new world we live in right now with the pandemic."
Another hurdle travellers may face is unexpected flight cancellations.
This month, Air Canada Vacations announced it will suspend some flights to sun destinations between Jan. 24 and April 30. After cutting 15 per cent of its January flights, WestJet announced on Tuesday it will cancel 20 per cent of its February flights.
Long said she and her husband enjoyed their trip to Mexico so much, they had planned to return again in the upcoming weeks. However, the couple recently nixed their plans due to concerns over flight cancellations.
"It's the uncertainty right now," said Long. "I don't want to get down there and then be stranded."
However, she's still optimistic about a trip the couple has booked in May to Spain.
Despite testing positive while travelling, Brennan hopes to return to Ireland this summer — even if the pandemic hasn't waned by then.
"I spent a year and a half of my life not seeing family, not seeing friends," he said. "I'm not going to stop living my life."