Travel agents are being flooded with requests from Canadians eager to book vacations now that the federal government has said it will drop pre-arrival PCR tests for fully vaccinated travellers as of Feb. 28
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced Tuesday that travellers will still be required to take a pre-arrival test for COVID-19, but they can instead opt for an authorized rapid antigen test taken no more than one day before their scheduled flight or arrival at the land border.
Antigen tests are generally cheaper and more widely available than a molecular test and can provide results within minutes.
Also starting Feb. 28, unvaccinated children under the age of 12 entering Canada with fully vaccinated parents will no longer have to avoid schools, daycare or other crowded settings for 14 days, said Duclos.
Several travel agents say they’re having trouble keeping up with a swell of demand now that travel rules are changing.
“I’m getting so many bookings, I’m not sure if I can handle all my clients,” said Katherine Velan, a travel agent with Direct Travel in Montreal.
Shalene Dudley, owner of Latitude Concierge Travels based in Burlington, Ont., said her “email has blown up” with people wanting to travel for spring break within the last 24 hours.
Both said Canada’s current travel rules, which require travellers entering Canada to show proof of a negative molecular test taken within 72 hours of their departing flight or planned arrival at the land border, have been a huge deterrent to Canadians wanting to travel.
“Of all the measures, that one’s been the bane of our existence as travel agents,” said Velan.
She said many clients avoided taking trips because of how difficult — and expensive — it could be to take a PCR test abroad.
A PCR test can range in price from $150 to $300. It can also be difficult to get test results within the specified 72 hours, as they typically must be processed in a lab.
“The problem previously was that the PCR [test] was hard to find, depending on the country you went to,” said Dudley.
“There was a limited supply. Sometimes the labs didn’t have a good enough turnaround time, and often travellers were stuck or had to pay hundreds of dollars per person to get help.”
But the rapid tests will need to be carried out by a laboratory or health-care entity, so home tests won’t be allowed.
Even so, “that is a good thing,” said Ajay Kumar, owner of My Choice Travel and Tour Inc. in Winnipeg.
Many of his customers travel to the Punjab region of India, and the pricey PCR test has been a major barrier, Kumar said.
Velan said the change in federal travel rules definitely played a big part in boosting travel bookings, but interest was already increasing in the weeks leading up to the announcement.
Canadians itching to travel
Travel agencies and airlines were already seeing a surge in bookings abroad last week.
Canadian-based travel agency Flight Centre said last week bookings for trips departing from Canadian airports in March 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.”
Bookings to sun destinations via Tripcentral.ca topped 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with an uptick over the weekend as word spread of a possible wind-down of testing requirements, said president Richard Vanderlubbe.
He said calls were coming in so fast he was struggling to hire enough agents to handle them after cutting nearly 60 per cent of his 160 employees and shuttering all 26 office locations in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
“The whole industry is finding that we’re short-staffed right now for this rise that’s come,” he said.
Martin Taller, co-ordinator of the tourism and travel program at Algonquin College in Ottawa, said many travel agents have left the industry in favour of better job stability and higher incomes.
Taller said the travel industry is usually “one of the first to feel the downturn, but the first to feel the upturn,” and he’s noticing that many employers are looking to “get anybody that’s interested back in the business” as they deal with this surge.
The new travel rules coming into effect Feb. 28 “will hopefully bring a new confidence to the trade, a new groundswell of business,” Taller said.
“There will be, I think, an influx of new folks coming back into the industry and getting licensed to sell travel.”
Dudley said many people are surprised to hear there’s “very limited availability in a lot of resorts” over spring break right now, with Canadians competing with people across the globe who’ve also postponed their travels since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.
Many hotels, airlines and tourist operators downsized their operations and laid off staff earlier in the pandemic, Velan said, and are now struggling to operate at full capacity.
“It’s not pre-COVID travel anymore,” said Velan.
“Things cost more. It’s harder to get hotels. It’s harder to get flights. It’s harder to do everything. Most car rental companies sold off all their cars. So there’s not nearly as many cars…. Hotels have trouble getting staff so they can open up all their rooms.”
Velan and Dudley are both warning travellers that many vacation destinations are going to be completely booked soon, if they aren’t already.
Dudley added there’s still some risk in travelling and it’s important to plan around possible COVID-19 infection. She recommends people purchase travel insurance.
“It’s very important to know what all of your options are if you get sick and how you would return home.”