Many Canadians were forced to shelve their upcoming vacations when the pandemic first hit.
Two years later, as March break approaches, and with COVID-19 restrictions lifting, a number of people are anxious to resurrect those long-awaited travel plans.
Canadian-based travel agency Flight Centre said bookings for trips departing from Canadian airports in March have spiked by more than 700 per cent compared to bookings the same time last year.
“There is no question there’s pent-up demand,” said Flight Centre spokesperson Allison Wallace. “People … want to take that trip that they’ve been waiting for.”
But with the pandemic far from over, travellers still face a spate of rules when returning to Canada, including providing PCR test results to re-enter the country and the chance of being randomly selected for another PCR test upon arrival.
And the process has only become more complicated due to the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Difficulties booking pre-entry test
To return home, Canadians must show proof of a negative molecular test (such as a PCR test) within 72 hours of their departing flight or planned arrival at the land border. Due to Omicron’s rapid spread and an increase in international travel, Canadians may face difficulty booking their pre-entry test, or getting their results in time.
“Say you’re driving across the border in Washington or something — it’s very hard to get appointments if you’re just doing it for travel and you’re not a citizen,” said Wallace.
Snowbirds David and Dianne Fine are currently living in an RV park in Yuma, Ariz., but plan to return home to Hepworth, Ont., in early April. The couple said they worry about getting a timely test in April — a month when thousands of Canadian snowbirds will likely be lining up for the same pre-entry test in the U.S. before returning to Canada.
“People are going to be stuck at the border,” worried David Fine. “It’s going to be a mess.”
Wallace advises travellers pre-book their return test at a clinic near their travel destination well in advance to avoid any hold-ups.
“I highly recommend booking your appointment before you even take your trip,” she said.
Fine said the best solution would be for the federal government to nix the pre-entry test requirement for fully vaccinated travellers — something several politicians and travel industry groups have previously lobbied for.
“Anyone who has three vaccines should not need to take a PCR test,” said Fine. “They’re responsible and they’ve done their duty.”
Despite the pleas, the government says that, due to Omicron’s continued spread, the country’s travel rules remain in place for now.
“It’s quite difficult to sort of reduce those measures when that’s the situation,” said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam at a news conference on Friday.
However, she also noted that Canadians need to return to some sort of normalcy, and suggested that Canada’s travel rules will be re-evaluated in the “days and weeks to come.”
Difficulties proving COVID-19 recovery
Canada’s pre-entry test also poses problems for travellers who believe they recently recovered from COVID-19, but weren’t able to get a PCR test in their province due to overwhelming demand.
People who recently recovered from the virus can skip the pre-entry test — but only if they show proof of a COVID-19 positive test taken between 10 and 180 days before returning to Canada.
Without proof of a positive PCR test, previously infected travellers must take the pre-entry test to return home, and run the risk of testing positive (some people continue to test positive for up to three months after they had COVID-19, even if they’re no longer infectious).
Those who test positive must isolate and wait at least 10 days before flying home to Canada.
In an opinion piece published this month, infectious diseases physician Zain Chagla argued Canada’s travel rules make no sense, partly because travellers who have no proof of their previous infection will be penalized if they test positive while abroad — due an illness they’ve already recovered from.
They may endure “travel delays, financial penalties, and the need to find a secondary quarantine location, all with no meaningful societal benefit,” wrote Chagla, an associate professor at McMaster University.
Flight Centre’s Wallace said travellers concerned they may test positive due to a previous infection should consider paying for a PCR test before leaving Canada for their trip.
While it’s often difficult in Canada for symptomatic people to get a PCR test, many private clinics offer testing for asymptomatic people — for around $150 per person.
“If it were me and I was in that position, I definitely would be wanting to get my own test,” said Wallace. “It’s worth the investment.”
Risk of randomly selected quarantine
Fully vaccinated travellers entering Canada now get to skip the country’s 14-day quarantine requirement. But they may not be able to avoid quarantine altogether.
The federal government is doling out PCR tests daily to thousands of randomly selected fully vaccinated travellers upon arrival. Those selected who had spent their travels outside the U.S. must quarantine until they receive their test results.
The government has yet to explain why travellers entering Canada from trips in the U.S. get to skip quarantine if they’re selected for a test.
Some travellers have reported waiting up to six days to get their test results, or even longer if they’re given an at-home test which must be shipped to a lab.
“You feel that you’re stuck. You’re in the prison until somebody tells you you can get out,” said Sherif Barakat of Ottawa, who flew home from Mexico last month, and waited five days in isolation before receiving his negative test result.
Some medical professionals and members of the travel industry have criticized Canada’s arrival testing program, arguing the government-funded tests are a waste of resources.
“Air travel continues to be the most tested, yet most restricted consumer activity in Canada,” said WestJet in a news release Monday, which called for the end of mass arrival testing.
The Public Health Agency of Canada said the government is working with the provinces to review its arrival testing program, but gave no indication when the rules might be revised.
“Even fully vaccinated individuals can still become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19,” said spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau in an email. “For this reason, it is important to continue taking precautions by testing travellers both prior to entry and on arrival.”