COVID-19 travel: Canada 'late in making plans' and 'lagging behind' other countries to change travel, tourism restrictions

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TORONTO, Jan. 7, 2021 -- A woman wearing a face mask walks out of the arrival hall at Toronto International Airport in Toronto, Canada, on Jan. 7, 2021. COVID-19 conditions in Canada have been worsening as the country confirmed more than 633,400 COVID-19 cases and over 16,500 deaths as of Thursday, according to CTV. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images) (Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images)

As plans for safe travel are announced internationally, particularly in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S., some travel and tourism experts have identified that Canada is "lagging behind" other international markets, while we try to administer COVID-19 vaccines to as many people as possible.

"I think the Canadians tend to be lagging behind some other countries at the moment," Dr. Frederic Dimanche, director at the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University, told Yahoo Canada "We see that the European countries have thought a lot more about reopening than the Canadians have."

On Friday, the U.K. announced its "green" list of places deemed safe for travel without a quarantine requirement, beginning on May 17, which includes: Portugal, Gibraltar, Israel, Brunei, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Falkland Islands, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, Saint Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he is "working with allies" on possibly creating vaccine passports or certifications to resume international travel, executed with a similar approach.

"As people start to travel again, perhaps this summer if everything goes well, it would make sense for us to align with partners around the world on some sort of proof of vaccination or vaccine certification," Trudeau said at a press conference on Tuesday. "We are now working with allies, particularly in Europe, on that."

Last week, the European Commission confirmed an official proposal for Member States to ease the current restrictions on non-essential travel into the EU, particularly for travellers who have received all required doses of an EU-authorized COVID-19 vaccine. The Commission also plans to rollout a vaccine certificate across the EU by June, which would provide proof of being vaccinated, proof of a negative COVID-19 test or recovery from COVID-19.

France and Italy have also outlined plans to allow some tourists back to their countries in June, with proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test requirement in place.

It's these kinds of preparations that Dimanche identifies as lacking in Canada at the moment, largely leaving the industry unable to prepare for its anticipated reopening.

"Canada has yet to do that and I think it's something the government will have to address very rapidly, publicly, so that the industry is aware," he said. "We don't have a specific date in Canada yet, we don't have a specific target even in terms of how many people should be vaccinated for us to work to start reopening."

"That's my concern about Canada, I think we are a little bit late in making plans, or at least making those plans public."

Step 1 should be opening the U.S.-Canada border, experts say

Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, told Yahoo Canada that it has been good to hear government officials discussing possible lifting of travel restrictions, and coordination with G7 and G20 partners on things like proof of vaccination, COVID-19 testing and quarantining.

"The suggestion has been made that we start with allowing people to cross [the U.S.] border if they've had both of their vaccinations and allow the beginning of movement of people to start, that's what we want to see," Potter said. "We want to see people going back and forth across the border again, so if we can at least start with those who have had both of their vaccines, that would be great."

"We've got to learn to live in a world where this virus exists. We need processes in place that eliminate quarantines because that doesn't help the travel and tourism sector at all, but it can be replaced with rigorous testing regimes."

Marsha Walden, president and CEO of Destinations Canada, identified to Yahoo Canada that there are "some glimmers of hope" in terms of Canada's travel and tourism sector recovery.

"We have a steady pace of vaccination programs underway, we see [increasing] confidence among Canadians as they search for travel options in the future," Walden said.

"We have an industry that is ready to host, they've made a lot of changes over the past year to be sure that the health hygiene protocols are in place and ready to roll. So I think we're in good shape for recovery."

Canada's biggest obstacle to travel, tourism recovery

Potter cautions that it will take some time for the travel and tourism industry to recover, with the expectation that it won't be back to the 2019 level, from both a revenue or people standpoint, until at least 2024.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on across Canada, shutting down hotels, tourism attractions, restaurants and other hospitality sites, many members of this workforce moved on to different industries, resulting in questions around whether there will be enough people to fill that need in Canada's hospitality sector, when it begins to resurge.

"In normal times, prior to the pandemic, we were an industry that employed 1.8 million people, we know that we have displaced 500,000," Potter said. "We are expecting that it's not going to be a matter of recalling them back to work, because they'll have moved on."

"We're going to be probably hard-pressed to find enough people to provide the great experiences that guests to our businesses have come to expect."

Walden echoed that labour supply in this sector has been an issue in pre-pandemic years and that trend is something expected to continue, but she hopes some of these individuals will return to the industry, when possible.

"It's very difficult [to turn] some industries back on overnight," she said. "There's a lot of complex regulation, for instance, that is associated with air transportation, so ground crews, pilots, airline staff all need to have some ramp up time."

"We do expect labour will be a problem for our industry going forward and we're certainly hoping that all those skilled workers that were part of our industry will reconsider and come back, as we desperately need them."

Dimanche's main concern is also a deficit in travel, tourism and hospitality workers, but stressed that it's not just a concern for Canada, but a concern internationally.

"It's going to be up to the travel and tourism and hospitality sector to...bring back the necessary human resources that they will need to deliver the quality services that they must deliver to satisfy the visitors," he said. "I'm really concerned that the travel and tourism sector may not be able, in the short term, to respond to the demand."

"The travellers who have not been travelling for a year and a half now are expecting to be well treated. They are expecting to have a good experiences, they want [to say,] 'Hey, you want us to travel again, here we are, please serve as properly, give us the satisfaction, give us the value that we deserve.'"

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada - 11 September 2017: Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada - Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria (Getty Images)

'This is the year of travelling Canada'

Travel experts are in agreement that domestic and localized travel will be the first to rebound, which is not just a safety consideration but also an important aspect to helping Canada's travel and tourism sector recover.

Walden explained that if Canadians spend just two-thirds of what they would normally spend on their vacations in Canada this year, it would speed up the recovery for the industry by an entire year.

"Certainly among Canadians, there's a huge pent up demand for travel," she said. "I think it's important that Canadians seriously consider spending their money in Canada this year,...Canadians have the opportunity to have a big impact."

Potter also wants to encourage Canadians to explore their own country, when it is safe to do so, but specifically for multiple years into the future.

"We're not the only country that's been going through this so we're going to be fighting globally for the attention of the global traveller," she said. "So it would be great if Canadians can take the pledge to travel in Canada for the next couple of years."

Dimanche expects Canadians to travel domestically at the outset but stressed that there would be merit in a coordinated approach between provinces, when Canadians can travel anywhere in the country. He added that some people will be more willing to take on any associated risks with travelling.

"We need to make sure that people understand that we'll have to be careful when travelling," he said. "Some people will continue to feel more comfortable and safer by staying at home."

"The desire to travel is there, for sure, but it may take months, maybe an extra year, for people to really feel they have the confidence to travel again. It's not just a matter of, I want to travel. At the same time, I want to feel safe when travelling, and that may take a bit more time."