Winnipeg travel agents, airport officials eager to see loosened requirements take off

Winnipeg travel agents say they are thrilled and relieved after the federal government announced the end of a requirement for pre-arrival PCR tests for travellers fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Travellers will still have to take a test to return, but can opt for a cheaper rapid antigen test

Travellers at Winnipeg Richardson International Airport on March 17, 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Travellers will once again be able to return to Canada without having to get a PCR test, the federal government announced Tuesday. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Winnipeg travel agents say they are thrilled and relieved after the federal government announced the end of a requirement for pre-arrival PCR tests for travellers fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

As of Feb. 28, travellers will still need to take a pre-arrival test, but can opt for a clinic-administered rapid antigen test before their flight or arrival at their destination, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced Tuesday.

The rapid tests — which can not only provide results in minutes, but are usually far less expensive than PCR tests — will need to be carried out by a laboratory or health-care entity, so home tests won't be allowed.

Even so, "that is a good thing," said Ajay Kumar, owner of My Choice Travel and Tour Inc. in Winnipeg.

"That is a very very big relief … because people were spending 200, 300, 400 dollars on top of just the PCR test."

Many of his customers travel to the Punjab region of India, and the pricey PCR test has been a major barrier, Kumar said.

He was also happy to hear Tuesday that the federal government announced plans to end its recommendation against non-essential travel.

"I'm sure the globe is coming out of this pandemic, slowly but surely," said Kumar.

Ajay Kumar, owner of My Choice Travel and Tour Inc., says he and his customers welcome the loosening of requirements, especially the requirement for a PCR test for vaccinated travelers. (Submitted by Ajay Kumar)

Currently, travellers entering Canada must show proof of a negative molecular test taken within 72 hours of their departing flight or planned arrival at the land border.

As of Feb. 28, some randomly selected travellers will still need a PCR test, but will not have to quarantine while waiting for results. Unvaccinated travellers will continue to be tested on arrival.

'We'll see people moving again'

Tyler MacAfee, vice-president of communications and government relations at the Winnipeg Airports Authority, said the  changes are a "step in the right direction" — particularly the removal of the recommendation against non-essential travel.

"It's a good sign, right as we move into March break. This is one of the busiest times of the year at the airport. It's encouraging that we'll see more people moving and traveling again," he said. 

The airport would like to see the rapid test requirement go the way of the PCR, MacAfee added.

"There's still certainly a cost associated with that, which is something we'd like to see removed altogether."

Because airlines are usually scheduling months in advance, changes to the frequency and volume of flights won't be immediate as a result of the changes, he said.

However, the shift "certainly sends a signal to the airlines that Canada is opening up, just like the rest of the world already has," said MacAfee.

International travel restrictions changing

The removal of a seven-night hotel quarantine for passengers leaving the Philippines earlier this month has also led to a flood of people looking to fly out of Winnipeg, said one travel agent.

"In the last two weeks our phone hasn't stopped ringing. It's been super busy," said Rebecca Perron at Sarbit Insurance and Travel Agency, which serves a mainly Filipino clientele.

"At one point, on Saturday, our office was packed.… We've been doing so well with business going to Asia, mainly the Philippines. However, I have three tours going to Europe and I'm almost full of those," she said. 

A 2018 file photo shows tourists learning to paddle at the Philippines' most famous beach resort island of Boracay. A Winnipeg travel agent says the removal of a seven-night hotel quarantine requirement for passengers leaving the Philippines earlier this month has led to many people looking to book travel. (The Associated Press)

Federal officials said if the epidemiological situation continues to improve, hospitalizations decline and Canadians keep getting their booster shots, restrictions could be eased further in the coming weeks. 

"I think people are just dying to get out of this," said Perron. "They had enough of COVID with all the restrictions in place."

She's also glad the PCR test requirement is being eliminated, since the rule tended to ruin the last few days of holidays for people as they waited for results. 

"I'm so happy this is finally happening. I think with travel agencies, their business is going to start getting busy now. They're going to be so busy they won't know what to do anymore."


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