The travel itch is boosting vacation bookings, but COVID testing remains key hurdle
Bookings rise to 50% above pre-pandemic levels
Travel agencies and airlines are seeing a surge in bookings abroad as the spring break approaches, but a real spike will likely hinge on how far the federal government rolls back COVID-19 testing rules.
Bookings to sun destinations via Tripcentral.ca now top 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with an uptick over the weekend as word spread of a possible wind-down of testing requirements, said president Richard Vanderlubbe.
Calls are coming in so fast he's struggling to hire enough agents to handle them after cutting nearly 60 per cent of his 160 employees and shuttering all 26 office locations in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
"The whole industry is finding that we're short-staffed right now for this rise that's come. And we're still dealing with the cancellations that occurred before and getting people rebooked'' — a particularly time-consuming task for customers and agents alike — he said in a phone interview.
Flight Centre spokeswoman Allison Wallace predicts a sustained industry rebound as confidence in travel safety continues to build, with about 80 per cent of Canadians now double vaccinated.
"We are extremely busy as we've seen a significant increase in both inquiries and bookings. Last year ... there was a lot more uncertainty around restrictions and border requirements that were changing regularly,'' Wallace said in an email.
"The PCR testing upon arrival is the biggest deterrent for people right now and if the government does in fact announce its removal (or even a rapid antigen test instead), we expect to see bookings increase dramatically beyond March break.''
Calls for clear timelines
While Flight Centre reservations for the next month remain at 40 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, departure numbers have shot up to more than eight times last year's total, when Caribbean flights were halted.
Ottawa continues to mandate molecular testing before departure to Canada and upon arrival, even as airlines and infectious disease specialists call for an end to travel testing and countries such as Denmark, Switzerland and the United Kingdom scrap requirements for vaccinated passengers.
The Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable is demanding the federal government lay out a road map with clear timelines around removing pre-departure and on-arrival testing and isolation rules for inoculated passengers and their children, as well as blanket travel advisories in place since mid-December when the Omicron variant spread widely.
"Since the pandemic's start, only one per cent of all cases of COVID-19 in Canada have been related to travel, and throughout the last wave the test positivity rate in communities reached ten times what it was at our borders,'' the roundtable said Monday in a letter to the prime minister.
Travel rules were designed to keep the virus out of the country, but community spread is now responsible for about 99 per cent of all infections, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph's hospital in Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University, last week.
Singling out travel for COVID-19 testing "does not make any sense'' since it is no riskier than other activities, he said.
PCR tests often deliver positive results for weeks after a COVID-19 diagnosis, needlessly barring those infected during the Omicron wave from flying into the country, added Dr. Dominik Mertz, division director of infectious diseases at McMaster.
The extent of a travel rebound will turn on the degree of testing scale-back.
"The devil's going to be in the details with a PCR test announcement,'' said Tripcentral.ca's Vanderlubbe. There may be rapid test requirements instead, for example, or changes to travel advisories.
For now, families with children under five who go abroad have to quarantine together for 10 days upon return, since all unvaccinated residents must self-isolate after re-entering the country. Health Canada has approved COVID-19 vaccines only for people age five and older.
Another deterrent to trip-seekers is the ongoing federal warning against overseas travel, which affects insurance policies and piles on more costs for passengers.
"The travel advisory is a major piece because it knocks out medical insurance on standard policies for COVID. People have to buy extra policies. So if the travel advisory is reduced from 'avoid all non-essential travel' to country-specific warnings again, like it was earlier in late October, we could see a bigger resurgence,'' Vanderlubbe said.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos signalled Friday the government would announce changes to pandemic border restrictions this week.
For now, airlines continue to feel the pinch of pandemic protocols.
WestJet Airlines Ltd. plans to operate roughly half the number of daily flights in March — about 350 — compared to the same month in 2019. But it has increased its flight frequencies by 10 per cent month over month since January, despite Ottawa offering "no clear path forward,'' said spokesperson Denise Kenny.
"While demand is not yet at pre-pandemic levels, we are seeing a strong uptake in last-minute bookings for March, as more Canadians are eager to return to the tropics after months of staying home and looking forward to a much-needed break from the cold winter months,'' Sunwing Airlines said in an email.