‘Like a punch’: Canadian travelers rethink vacation plans as Omicron variant spreads

Canadian travel agents are navigating the emergence of a new variant of COVID-19 as customers cancel reservations and reconsider vacation travel.

While it is too early to know how the Omicron variant, which public health officials in southern Africa identified last week, will affect the travel industry, some travelers have already canceled their plans to visit Europe, Africa and the Middle East in the next few months.

Judith Coates, a travel agent and founder of the Canadian Association of Independent Travel Advisors, said she recently received travel cancellations 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,” Coates said.

On Tuesday, Ottawa beefed up its defenses against the Omicron variant with new testing and quarantine requirements for inbound air travelers 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 travelers, regardless of vaccination status, to take government-provided molecular testing upon arrival at Canadian airports from the Foreign.

That is in addition to the existing requirement to get tested and receive a negative result within 72 hours before flying to Canada.

The government has also banned foreign nationals who have been to three other African countries (Egypt, Malawi and Nigeria) from traveling to Canada, just days after banning travel from seven other countries, including South Africa.

Kristin Hoogendoorn, a travel agent for Toronto-based KMH Travels, said customers are more likely to cancel reservations if they are heading to the Middle East, Europe or Africa. Most of their reservations go to the Caribbean at this time of year, so few have canceled, but many have expressed concern.

“People will hear the variant word, they will see it all over the news and they will freak out,” Hoogendoorn told The Canadian Press.

“This variant feels like a blow to our small sector, which continues to be mistreated, and if people cancel, I don’t know how long we could survive.”

Canada’s travel industry was making a comeback after months of restricted border mobility when news of the Omicron variant emerged. In early November, Air Canada reported that domestic leisure bookings were on the mend and travelers were once again heading to sunny destinations.

The National Airline Council of Canada said the industry has implemented the federal government’s mandatory vaccination policy for aviation employees and passengers in recent weeks.

While the council said the variant’s impact will be “manageable,” it cautioned that “the economic uncertainty facing aviation cannot be overstated.”

Karlee Marshall, a travel consultant for Toronto-based Glenny Travel, said many of her clients are “very nervous” about traveling, though she encourages 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 Omicron cases: 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 that it is more transmissible and has already spread widely.

The discovery of the variant prompted travel bans globally, with several countries moving to ban 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 UK.

In some cases, travelers who tested positive for Omicron reported no connection to South Africa.

Still, travel agents say they anticipate a continued recovery for travel in 2022.

“We are beginning to learn to live with COVID-19, I think. It may not go away completely, but I think we are reaching a place where travel can continue even in the era of the pandemic, ”said Richard Smart, executive director of the Ontario Travel Industry Council.


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