As Omicron variant spreads, some Sask. residents cancel, reconsider holiday travel plans

It's the time of year when many people travel to see loved ones, but the COVID-19 omicron variant and changing travel restrictions are making some reconsider, or cancel plans altogether.

COVID-19 caseload expected to 'rapidly escalate,' Canada’s top doctor says

Derek Strelioff, who lives in Ottawa, is considering cancelling his holiday plans to visit his family in Saskatoon because of the omicron coronavirus variant. (Submitted by Derek Strelioff)

This will be Armin Sanghara's first Christmas away from his family. 

Sanghara, who moved to Saskatoon from Toronto in the summer for work, cancelled his holiday trip back home because of the latest coronavirus variant of concern: omicron. 

"It's a little bit of a downer," Sanghara, who works in the cannabis industry, told CBC News. "But I'm just trying to do what I can for essentially the greater good here." 

And he's not alone. Many people who were planning to travel to see loved ones, or to celebrate the season, are changing their plans, or figuring out how to deal with the uncertainty of the situation, as travel restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 are being reintroduced.

The only flight Sanghara could get connected through Calgary, quadrupling the time he would spend in the air and in airports. 

"I just really wanted to avoid any long-term exposure due to this variant," he said.

Armin Sanghera, who recently moved to Saskatoon, cancelled his upcoming trip back home to Toronto. (Submitted by Armin Sanghera)

Community spread of the omicron variant — which early data suggests is highly transmissible — and new COVID-19 cases are expected to "rapidly escalate" in the coming days, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said Monday.

The variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 already accounts for about 31 per cent of Ontario's cases of the illness. Dr. Peter Jüni, the head of the Ontario Science Table, which advises the province, said omicron is poised to become the dominant variant on Tuesday or Wednesday.

About 30% of trips cancelled: tourism association

This worries Derek Strelioff, who works in the public service in Ottawa but is originally from Saskatchewan. He's supposed to travel to Saskatoon this Thursday to see his family for the first time in a year-and-a-half.

He's considering calling off his plans.

"It's a special time and I'd like to see them, but the way things are going, I don't want to be a risk factor for bringing it to Saskatchewan or bringing it back." 

Strelioff said a few of his relatives in Saskatoon contracted COVID-19 in the past. One had to be hospitalized.

He said if he does go to Saskatoon, he'll only gather with his parents and siblings and will take rapid COVID tests.

Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said she's hearing that about 30 per cent of holiday trips have been cancelled.

She said she's worried about what the omicron variant means for the tourism and hospitality industry, which was slowly starting to recover from the relentless health crisis. 

"We're very concerned, because if the message is going out to Canadians to stay home or to not gather, and certainly if additional restrictions come down, it's going to have another impact on the tourism and hospitality industry," she said.

Jamie Milton, a partner at Uniglobe Carefree Travel in Saskatoon, said two or three per cent of overall bookings at the travel agency have been cancelled. Many people are still holding on to their upcoming trips, especially to sunny destinations, she said.

Travellers will need to be flexible and be prepared for flight delays or changes, said Milton. She advises people to work with travel agents, who are on top of the evolving restrictions.

"If you don't travel a lot or if you're a nervous traveller, it may not be the right time for you."

International travel curbs

Canada banned visitors who have recently been in 10 African countries at the end of November, and has been introducing more travel restrictions and measures to try and curb the spread of the omicron variant. 

And Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has warned that Canadians returning home from abroad that they "should expect delays and hassles" at airports.

"You need to plan ahead, be prepared for airport delays, have a quarantine plan," Duclos said on Friday. "You should also be prepared for officials to follow up with you to make sure your COVID testing is complete."

The federal government requires all passengers entering Canada, except those from the United States, to be tested for COVID-19 on arrival and to isolate until they get their results.

Travel agents "are seeing a lot of questions around what the new test on arrival means for our clients and what they should expect," said Milton.

"We are counselling them to make sure they are prepared, but we are finding that most of our clients have delayed vacations for two years and they are quite excited and determined to enjoy their time away."

WATCH | Caution for Canadians travelling abroad for the holidays: 

Caution for Canadians travelling abroad for the holidays

5 months ago
Duration 1:59
Federal officials are warning Canadians that travelling abroad is both “risky and unstable” given the emergence of the omicron variant. Travellers can expect to face changing rules abroad and at home as the pandemic situation shifts.

Chase Berry, who lives in Martensville, about 18 kilometres north of Saskatoon, cancelled his upcoming trip to Rochester, New York to see his family. 

The software engineer said it's a big hurdle that the U.S. is requiring air travellers from abroad to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test result that was taken within one day of departure. 

On top of that, one of his connecting flights was cancelled and rebooking will cost hundreds of dollars, Berry said.

"I just thought it was better to not deal with the new COVID restrictions for travel and the risk and just stay put," he said. 

"I missed last year and I didn't want to. I had promised my sister and my parents that I'd be there this year and it kind of sucks that I'm not able to hold that up." 

As for Sanghara, he's planning on volunteering at some charity organizations instead of visiting family. 


Yasmine Ghania is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, currently based in Saskatoon.

With files from John Paul Tasker


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