Canadians appear eager to take off for sun destinations despite ongoing COVID-19 challenges
Increased demand for bookings, as Ottawa still advising Canadians to stay home
Michel Dubois has packed his bags, even though his planned trip to Cuba is still more than two months away.
That's because the retired TV cameraman and editor from Saint-Jérome, Que., is eager for a break from the monotony of pandemic life.
"After a year and a half of sitting in front of my TV and computer, it's time to move on," said Dubois, 70, who plans to do some scuba diving and enjoy the sun.
Trips like the one Dubois has booked are giving airlines and tour operators something to look forward to as well — seemingly better business prospects after months of severely hampered operations due to pandemic-related border closures and travel restrictions.
Some key travel players are reporting increased demand for bookings to sun destinations, despite the ongoing challenges of a global pandemic that has yet to end inside or outside Canada's borders.
Better days ahead?
The onset of the pandemic prompted governments — including Canada's — to urge people to stay home to stem the spread of the coronavirus and its variants.
It's a stance Ottawa still holds, even though the government recently loosened restrictions for incoming travellers who are vaccinated.
"We continue to advise against non-essential travel outside of Canada," Global Affairs Canada said in an email on Friday, noting that this applies to all countries around the globe.
The department also pointed to practical concerns for those who choose to go abroad.
"Additional travel restrictions can be imposed suddenly. Airlines can suspend or reduce flights without notice. Travel plans may be severely disrupted, making it difficult to return home."
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Indeed, COVID-19 travel restrictions vary from country to country, with vaccine passports gaining traction with some governments. Prior to the current federal election campaign, Ottawa had announced plans to develop such documentation for international travel.
Then and now
Ambarish Chandra, an associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto, says that while the government actively discouraged travel last winter, that didn't deter all people from going abroad — such as snowbirds who went to Florida.
With the progress on vaccination that has been made, Chandra said he believes Ottawa's stance on leisure travel may have to shift.
"I don't think it would be reasonable for the government to go a second winter season saying: 'Don't travel,'" Chandra said in an interview.
Jörg Fritz, an associate professor in the microbiology and immunology department at Montreal's McGill University, says that as travel picks up, Canada will have to keep a close eye on what strains of the virus are circulating here and around the globe.
"We simply need to face that this virus will not go away that quickly," he said.
"The danger that new variants arise that might escape vaccine-induced immunity is still there and will be there for quite a while."
It's also key for Canada to continue increasing its vaccination rate and to ensure that children are protected as soon as that is possible, Fritz said.
A desire to get away
Air Canada says the upcoming fall and winter looks promising for travel to sun destinations.
"When looking to the sun market, we are very optimistic about our recovery," airline spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News in a recent email, adding that "we are currently observing demand growth that is above 2019 levels."
Meanwhile, Sunwing Travel Group reports seeing "encouraging demand" compared with last fall, which spokesperson Melanie Anne Filipp says shows Canadians are growing more confident about travelling again.
"The rise in vaccinations across the country and easing border measures have without a doubt contributed to Canadians' increasing interest in travel to sun destinations," said Filipp, who noted that business remains below pre-pandemic levels.
Montreal-based Air Transat is currently flying passengers to a mix of domestic and international locations. Some of its sun destinations include Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico.
"We confirm that demand is doing well, and we clearly feel that the urge to travel is back," Air Transat spokesperson Debbie Cabana said via email.
"However, because of the uncertainty that still exists when traveling abroad, bookings are being made more last minute than before the pandemic."
Being able to back out
A last-minute travel buy was not the story for Dubois, the retired TV cameraman, who booked his own trip back in January.
But he also bought a ticket that will allow him to cancel his plans up to 24 hours before departure, with a full refund.
On prior trips, he hadn't tended to pencil in the possibility of needing to cancel — but that was before COVID-19.
"Before now, no," said Dubois, who worked for both CBC and Radio-Canada during his career. "Now, definitely."
The University of Toronto's Chandra says the more flexible arrangements being offered by airlines reflects the fact that some customers won't be willing to book expensive tickets if there's a chance they will lose their money.
Rolling out the welcome mat
Dubois is heading to Cuba at the end of November, and by that time, travel restrictions will have been eased.
The Cuban Tourism Ministry recently announced that as of Nov. 15, Canadians with proof of vaccination won't have to take a test before heading to the country. They'll also be able to travel across the island.
Sunwing's Filipp said that "numerous sun destinations are already open for travel," and like Cuba, other destinations are expected to ease restrictions of their own as vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 cases decline.
Chandra says he's doubtful that differing rules between sun destinations will have much of an effect on travel patterns.
That's because a lot of sun seekers — and snowbirds in particular — are likely to "stick to their choices" when it comes to their desired winter getaways. "They're not going to go other places," he said.
They're also unlikely to go to other regions because they head south to take advantage of the better weather, he said.