When the federal government prohibited flights from South Africa in response to Omicron, Kerwin Dougan took calls at odd hours to help his clients navigate a patchwork of travel bans and COVID-19 testing requirements.
Since then, he says, the situation for travel agents like himself has only gotten worse.
"Right now, we're just trying to survive," said Dougan, the co-owner of Voyages G Travel in Gatineau, Que.
Dougan and other area travel agents told CBC Ottawa that, after two lean years, a combination of holiday trip cancellations, travel rules and lacklustre financial support is putting their businesses in jeopardy — just as the industry appeared to be recovering.
Omicron reversed brief travel revival
International travel partly rebounded in 2021, returning to around one-quarter of pre-pandemic levels by October of last year, according to the most recent Statistics Canada data available.
The revival quickly reversed, however, as Omicron spread around the globe.
On Dec. 15, federal health minister Jean-Yves Duclos asked Canadians planning to travel abroad for the holidays to cancel their trips.
Dougan estimated his agency has lost nearly half its bookings to cancellations since the advisory came out.
The federal government currently requires all international travellers over five years of age to submit proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test, among other requirements, to enter Canada.
Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, said those requirements, coupled with global test shortages, are a major deterrent for travellers.
"It is going to be a devastating winter," she said.
Many ineligible for federal support
Dougan said he's grown accustomed to cancellations after two years, but this time around his business isn't able to access federal support.
"They're not helping us," he said. "That is the bottom line."
Most travel agents — around 80 per cent, Dougan estimated — work on commission.
That pay structure is causing problems because it means travel agents often do work up front only to go unpaid when trips get cancelled, said Judith Coates, co-founder of the Association of Independent Travel Advisors.
"It means, again, more work for no pay," she said.
Independent workers 'fallen through the cracks'
Marie-Pier Baril, press secretary for federal Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault, listed programs from CERB to the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit as ways the government has supported Canadians through COVID-19.
Eligible travel agencies could apply for wage and rent support under the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program or the Local Lockdown Program.
Independent travel agents, however, told CBC they did not meet the requirements for federal programs designed to support individuals, such as the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit.
Coates said the association started because its founders felt the needs of travel agents who work as sole proprietors — that is, they work alone rather than with a travel agency — were not being addressed.
In earlier waves of the pandemic, financial supports like the now-cancelled Canada emergency response benefit were the only programs available to independent agents, Coates said, something that forced them to pay business expenses with money meant "to pay their rent and put food on their table."
Paradis said around 40 per cent of travel agents in Canada are considered independent workers.
"There are a lot of independent workers who are really, really struggling," Paradis said. "Independent workers have fallen through the cracks of the financial support system."
As for Dougan, he said he's been forced to borrow money to keep Voyages G Travel open.
"We were starting to get back into it. Now we're right back off the shelf again," he said. "You're on your own."