Travel, tourism operators urge Ottawa to remove remaining travel restrictions

 Tuesday, March 1, 2022 


While easing COVID-19 border restrictions is a move in the right direction, remaining testing measures for fully vaccinated travellers are grounding the country’s hospitality industry, travel and medical experts said Monday.

The dropping of a requirement for PCR tests that took effect Monday doesn’t go far enough, and its replacement with rapid antigen screening remains a competitive challenge for Canada’s travel sector that’s been clobbered by the pandemic, said Richard Bartrem, spokesman for Calgary-based airline WestJet.

Travel has never been a significant vector of transmission yet this sector continues to be the only industry subject to testing, which is continuing to impact the recovery.

Canada is becoming an outlier as a host of other countries have dropped such requirements, he added.

With COVID-19 infections already so prevalent throughout Canada, it makes little sense to continue testing fully vaccinated travellers as they arrive or return to the country, said infectious disease specialist Dr. Zain Chagla.

Changes that went into effect Monday include a return to the pre-Omicron random testing program for vaccinated passengers, a relaxation of current rules that require even fully vaccinated and boosted passengers to present a negative COVID-19 test before entering the country.

Those selected for random testing will not need to quarantine while awaiting the results.

Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated children of two fully vaccinated parents will also not have to self-isolate before returning to school or daycare, he added.

The government is offering travellers the option to use rapid antigen tests instead of just molecular PCR tests — but only if administered by a laboratory or health-care provider. Those who choose the rapid test should be tested the day before they either begin their journey or are expected to arrive at a Canadian border station.

Unvaccinated foreign nationals remain banned from travelling to Canada, with a few exemptions.

Ottawa is also dropping its recommendation against non-essential travel.

While a higher level of border vigilance was needed earlier in the pandemic, the financial and emotional costs are longer worth even the eased screening regimen, said Chagla.

While some medical experts say some level of entry testing is valuable to gauge the international prevalence of COVID-19 variants, Chagla said that can be done at the community level and by confining border screening to symptomatic travellers.

WestJet’s daily flight numbers are currently at half their pre-pandemic levels, said Bartrem.

The hotel industry also remains tenuous with international travel numbers to Canada in 2021 down by 87 per cent compared with two years before, said Leanne Shaw, General Manager of Country Inn and Suites.

The change from a PCR to an antigen test has had no impact bookings — people want safety and predictability.

Travel agents’ livelihoods have been decimated by COVID-19, and federal pandemic financial support due to expire in the coming weeks needs to be renewed, said Lesley Keyter.

The travel expert said one way to quickly put those agents on a firmer footing is by doing away with the rapid antigen test, which undermines the willingness to travel.

Knowing there’s still a pre-entry requirement; a fear of returning home is just too much of a worry for Canadians, said Keyter.

WestJet’s Bartrem said his industry is still lobbying Ottawa for a full relaxation of travel restrictions, and hopes they do so within a month.

The federal government has called the evolving measures “transitionary” and subject to review.

This is a gradual process that puts science and evidence at the centre of our decision-making, federal Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault said earlier this month.

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