Planning a trip over the holidays? Expect airport delays, sudden travel restrictions, experts say
New testing requirements, uncertainty over omicron could make upcoming travel a challenge
As concerns around the omicron variant grow, infectious diseases expert Dr. Gerald Evans says that now is the time for Canadians to reconsider upcoming plans — particularly if they include international travel.
"What we need to do — all of us — is to reduce the opportunities for transmission to occur," said Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
Hidayet Mugjenkar and his family were set to fly to South Africa late last month to visit his ailing parents. They were forced to cancel when the federal government announced a ban on flights entering Canada from several countries in southern Africa.
"I really just wanted to go and see them because I don't know when we'll see them again," he told Cross Country Checkup. "Now, with all this travel ban and with COVID, it's just hard to predict when you'll be able to fly back again."
Following a previous announcement on restrictions for some flights from Africa, the federal government this week announced new testing requirements for those entering the country from outside Canada and the United States.
Travellers will now be swabbed upon arrival and required to quarantine until they receive a negative result. That's in addition to the existing pre-departure requirement of a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival in Canada.
"It's a little bit like déjà vu all over again," Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, said, reflecting on travel during the early days of the pandemic.
"We're just starting to understand this, but we don't have much data. So what the governments have been doing is reacting very swiftly — maybe too swiftly — imposing some travel bans."
The U.S. government has also announced that Canadians and other foreign visitors must now provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within 24 hours of departure, regardless of vaccination status, to enter the country as of Monday.
Know the travel restrictions at your destination
The latest data on omicron suggests that the variant may be more transmissible, but changes in the severity of illness compared with other variants remain unclear.
Still, Evans cautions against international travel as the situation shifts.
"In a few weeks, with omicron already well established on many different continents, we may be looking at the potential for travel restrictions being brought in that are more widespread or perhaps more onerous than what exists at the moment," he said.
Travel bans have largely targeted countries in southern Africa, where scientists sequenced the new variant late last month. Evans notes that countries across Europe, including France and Germany, have seen recent spikes in COVID-19 cases.
That's a concern echoed by Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, who says some countries have not yet focused their screening to detect omicron.
"They might be reporting no [omicron] cases, but when you get there, there might actually be a lot of transmission that might affect your ability to come home," she said.
In response to the omicron variant, France now requires all travellers from outside the European Union to provide a negative COVID-19 test.
Dimanche encourages anyone travelling this holiday season to be aware of rules and restrictions in their destination country.
'Travellers don't like the unknown'
Canada's latest measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 through travel could also snare travellers at airports in this country, Dimanche warns.
Testing of arriving travellers will take place at airports across the country, according to the federal government, but he says many operators are wondering how that will be implemented — and whether it will delay passengers attempting to board connecting flights or reach their destination.
"There is so much uncertainty because we don't know how this will be processed. We don't know how long it will take. We don't know if people will have to be stuck at the airport before they get the result of the test," Dimanche said.
"All of those are unknowns, and travellers don't like the unknown."
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the rollout of the additional testing would be uneven at first, with certain airports better equipped to handle the new rule.
"Let me be very clear: All travellers should be expected to be tested on arrival. We will not be able to test every targeted traveller overnight. It will take a few days," Duclos said.
When Mugjenkar travelled with his family last year to South Africa, they ended up trapped in the country for four months after rules had changed. Leaving Canada, they had been cleared for travel.
As the omicron variant makes travel unpredictable once again, he says he's not eager to repeat what happened last time.
"We've got friends that are actually stranded in South Africa at the moment and they can't fly back into Calgary, and they have no idea when the flights will reopen," he said.
"We're OK with the fact that the flights are cancelled, so we're just hoping they understand the variant better and things will open up again sooner."
Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC News, Ashley Fraser and Steve Howard.