Travellers face high cost of COVID-19 testing, uncertainty ahead of U.S. land border reopening
Travel industry wants end to testing for fully immunized travellers entering Canada
Mike Latour and Rick Macdonald hope to travel to Tampa, Fla. once the United States land border reopens on Nov. 8, but they say uncertainty around the COVID-19 rules and testing requirements have made planning the trip impossible.
The two snowbirds, both of whom are double vaccinated, are among many people the Canadian travel industry says are facing uncertainty and the burdensome cost of testing to return to the country. The pair say they find the situation confusing.
"The answers don't seem to be consistent, or they're leading you around in circles," Latour told CBC Toronto.
"I know a lot of Canadians feel the same way I do. They're just frustrated and they want the system to be more clear."
The travel industry is calling on the federal government to get rid of the testing requirement for people who are double- vaccinated as the U.S. prepares to reopen its borders to fully immunized travellers by air, land or passenger ferry next month.
The land border has been closed since the early days of the pandemic, although the U.S. has allowed Canadian leisure travellers to enter by air throughout the last two years.
It's not yet clear what COVID-19 testing requirements will be required at the land border to enter the U.S., but American officials have indicated it will be similar to air travel, which requires a negative COVID-19 test. Rapid antigen tests are accepted, and are cheaper than the molecular test, costing between $40 and $60 at some places in Toronto.
However, upon returning to Canada, all travellers aged five and older must take a COVID-19 molecular test, which generally costs more than $200, within 72 hours of the scheduled departure time of their flight. Rapid antigen tests are not accepted.
Snowbirds say they're in 'purgatory'
Once the border opens, Latour and Macdonald want to drive to Tampa, where Latour owns a house, leave the car there, and then fly back to Canada. Before the pandemic, the pair used to travel to Florida about once a year.
But Latour likens the situation they're in to being in "purgatory."
Macdonald says he has been trying to seek clarification around the testing requirements and other rules associated with the land border by contacting United States Customs and Border Protection — both in Detroit and in Buffalo — but says they weren't able to give him answers.
"In both cases, they told me that as far as they were concerned they know nothing about the land border being open to travel as of November 8."
Macdonald says they can't book return flights yet because of the uncertainties around what rules will be imposed at the land border.
"It is very frustrating because speaking to the border agents last night and the day before, they said they might get word the day before [the border opens]. They're in the dark as much as we are. So it makes it frustrating for everybody," he said.
"We'd just like to find something definitive as far as what's really going on."
Travel industry wants COVID testing relaxed
Travel industry representatives worry about what the cost of a PCR test will mean for snowbirds, as winter approaches and many look to head south.
The Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable held a news conference on Thursday to call on the government to abolish the COVID-19 tests for double vaccinated travellers to return to the country.
Representatives from the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), CanAge, the Canadian Snowbird Association and the travel industry voiced their concerns that the high cost associated with the tests was keeping people, especially seniors, from travelling.
Wendy Paradis, president of ACTA, says Canadians have a "pent-up demand" to travel, but many are cancelling or rescheduling just before leaving on their holidays "due to confusion about the border and testing and an overall feeling of uncertainty."
"Many Canadians remain confused about what is permitted when it comes to travelling domestically or internationally," she said.
She said the PCR test requirement was also burdensome because of the cost, which is often more than $200.
Many other countries, such as France, Germany, Portugal and the United Kingdom had scrapped the testing requirement for returning double-vaccinated travellers, she said, and Canada should follow suit.
Michael MacKenzie, executive director of the Canadian Snowbird Association, said each year, about one million Canadian snowbirds spend more than one week in the U.S. About 600,000 spend six months there.
He said "the majority" of the association's 115,000 members wanted to travel to the U.S. this winter and high vaccination numbers and low COVID-19 infection rates in Canada should remove the need for testing.
"But despite these strides, the government continues to place these unnecessary burdens on travellers that are not based on science," he said.
"With the continued requirement for a pre-departure PCR test, travel is becoming cost-prohibitve for our members, many of whom are retirees on fixed or limited incomes."
Travel agent Lorraine Simpson says before the pandemic, seniors accounted for 35 per cent of international Canadian travel, not including to the U.S.
She said the senior market had "simply not returned" despite travel restrictions lifting, and the industry was bracing for cancellations over the Christmas period.
"I personally am seeing cancellation after cancellation due to uncertainty," she said.
In a statement, Health Canada reiterated the country's stance on the requirement for pre-departure molecular tests to re-enter the country — both by land and by air.
However, for short trips of less than 72 hours, Canadian citizens, people who fall under the Indian Act and permanent residents travelling to the U.S. are required to take their pre-arrival molecular test before leaving Canada.
During a White House media briefing earlier this week, a senior administration official said additional details on requirements at the land border would be shared "soon."
"As previously announced, the land border requirements will be similar to the air travel, with foreign national travellers to the U.S. for nonessential reasons, like tourism, required to be fully vaccinated starting on November 8," the official said.