Canadian travel agents are navigating the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant as clients cancel bookings and reconsider holiday trips.
While it is too soon to know how the Omicron variant, which public health officials in southern Africa identified last week, will affect the travel industry, some travellers have already cancelled plans to visit Europe, Africa and the Middle East in the coming months.
Judith Coates, a travel agent and founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors, said she recently received cancellations for tours to Egypt and Israel after Canada tightened travel restrictions this week.
“I’m advising people to stay calm, and wait and see what happens, but sometimes it’s hard for people not to panic,” said Coates.
On Tuesday, Ottawa ramped up its defences against the Omicron variant with new test and quarantine requirements for incoming air travellers from all countries except the United States.
With seven cases of the variant detected in Canada as of Tuesday afternoon, Ottawa announced new requirements for most air travellers, regardless of vaccination status, to take government-provided molecular tests upon arrival at Canadian airports from abroad.
That is in addition to the existing requirement to be tested and receive a negative result within 72 hours before flying to Canada.
The government has also banned foreign nationals who have been to an additional three African countries — Egypt, Malawi and Nigeria — from travelling to Canada, just days after banning travel from seven other countries, including South Africa.
Kristin Hoogendoorn, a travel agent with Toronto-based KMH Travels, said customers are more likely to cancel bookings if they are headed to the Middle East, Europe or Africa. The bulk of her bookings are headed to the Caribbean this time of year, so few have cancelled but plenty have expressed concern.
“People will hear the word variant and they will see it all over the news and they will freak out,” Hoogendoorn told The Canadian Press.
“This variant feels like a sucker punch for our little tiny sector, that keeps getting battered, and if people cancel I don’t know how much longer we would be able to survive.”
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Canada’s travel industry was resurging following months of restricted border mobility when news of the Omicron variant surfaced. Early in November, Air Canada reported that domestic leisure bookings were recovering and travellers were once again heading to sun destinations.
The National Airlines Council of Canada said the sector has implemented the federal government’s mandatory vaccination policy for aviation employees and passengers over the past several weeks.
While the council said the impact of the variant will be “manageable,” it cautioned that “the economic uncertainty facing aviation cannot be overstated.”
Karlee Marshall, a travel consultant with Toronto-based Glenny Travel, said many of her clients are “very nervous” about travelling, though she is encouraging them to wait for more information to emerge about the variant.
“People don’t like unknowns. But we’re telling them to wait and see — we need to know more about the variant first,” Marshall said.
As of Tuesday, Canada had identified seven cases of Omicron — four in Ottawa, one in Quebec and two in Hamilton.
Very little is known about the new variant first discovered in South Africa in November. Omicron has a large number of mutations and the World Health Organization believes it is more transmissible and has already spread widely.
The variant’s discovery sparked global travel bans, with several countries moving to bar travel to and from countries in South Africa. But Omicron has already been discovered in places like Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Hong Kong, Israel, Portugal and the United Kingdom.
In some cases, travellers who tested positive for Omicron reported no connection to South Africa at all.
Still, travel agents say they anticipate a continued recovery for travel in 2022.
“We’re starting to learn to live with COVID-19, I think. It might not go away entirely, but I think we’re getting to a place where travel can continue even in the pandemic-era,” said Richard Smart, CEO of the Travel Industry Council of Ontario.
Jacob Lorinc is a Toronto-based reporter covering business for the Star. Reach him via email: [email protected]
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