Nova Scotia

Travel agents navigating 'new normal' as travel picks up

Instead of focusing on flight routes and fancy accommodations, travel agents are now becoming experts in the complex restrictions and requirements travellers face when they leave the country.

Maritime Travel says half its customers used to book trips online

Maritime Travel says more people started booking trips when they learned their children could be vaccinated. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Nearly two years after international travel came to a sudden halt, a Halifax-based travel company says Nova Scotians are itching to see the world once again.

But instead of focusing on flight routes and fancy accommodations, agents are now becoming experts in the complex restrictions and requirements travellers face when they leave the country.

"It can be a little bit overwhelming," said Myranda Miller, a branch manager with Maritime Travel.

She estimated about half of their clients are new — people who used to just book their own trips online.

"They would like to deal with somebody in person; somebody that has the expertise."

Myranda Miller said Maritime Travel is seeing a large number of new clients who used to book their own trips, but don't know how to deal with the new rules and restrictions. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Miller isn't just fielding questions about entry forms and COVID tests. Travellers also want to know about the conditions on the ground of their destinations. Miller said most people currently have an eye on all—inclusive vacations during the winter.

"One of the big questions that we're asked is 'Are the workers vaccinated? What's it look like down there?'"

She said the company has been doing extra research to get the answers.

"We're here to help you navigate through the new normal, and the restrictions of the apps and the PCR tests or the antigen tests that are required."

Miller estimated that their business has bounced back to between 70 to 80 per cent of pre—pandemic levels.

Now that things are picking up, Maritime Travel has been hiring new staff to keep up with the demand.

"It's really a nice change. We are so thrilled to see travel come back to life."

Group tours slow to restart

But that doesn't mean the entire industry is rebounding.

Atlantic Tours Limited has spent 50 years organizing group travel both to the region and to international destinations.

The majority of its customers are retirees and single people who like travelling in groups.

President Richard Arnold said that means they have to be extra cautious before their big trips start taking off again.

It's been tough for the self-proclaimed "director of fun," who said he can't wait to lead a group through an international destination again. 

"We take travel very seriously in that light, knowing that people have pre-existing health conditions and are an older clientele in that respect," he said. "If it's not safe for us to go, we're not going to go."

Atlantic Tours President Richard Arnold said he's hopeful their international group tours will resume in 2022. (CBC)

Arnold said this year the company has had just 10 per cent of its business compared to 2019. He says it's been a roller coaster in recent months, especially with the announcement of the Omicron variant.

"When things are positive, we start having the phones ring again, and when we get some shutdowns like recent, then the phones stop again."

Arnold said Atlantic Tours has adapted to make sure people have options.

He saw an increase in the number of people who opted for the company's self—driving tours of the region. The company also came up with new small group trips at home, including a lighthouse tour of Nova Scotia.

"On the group side, I guess maybe they're a little hesitant," he said of their traditional tours.

But Arnold said he knows people — including himself — are keen to go on their international trips once again. To encourage people to book, Atlantic Tours has reduced the deposit required for big trips in order to reduce the risk to travellers.

He said if the international getaways go ahead this year, the company won't make a profit because it's had to reschedule some of the tours so many times.

"Our biggest challenge has been the number of people who are on their fourth or fifth try for their vacation."

He said people have been very understanding. If the conditions are safe, he'll lead a tour of about 20 people to Bordeaux, France in April — the first of six international group trips he plans to lead next year.

"We're encouraged for 2022 but the winter business is anything but normal for us at this point."