For decades, Travis Stewart knew his job inside out: plan international trips, communicate with clients, book edge-of-the-seat type adventures.
Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 hit and everything changed.
"It's been a very challenging time and it's the most challenging time I've ever had in our industry for sure," says Stewart, co-owner of Stewart Travel Group, based in Charlottetown. As the pandemic grounded airplanes, closed borders and locked down entire cities, some travel agencies in Prince Edward Island struggled to stay afloat.
"We're kind of recreating business again," Stewart said.
Now as policymakers and health-care leaders cautiously move to reopen — fully vaccinated Canadians will be allowed to enter the United States at land and ferry border crossings starting in early November — travel has changed, as has the way travel agencies operate.
Before the pandemic, "we could actually say on March 11, we're going to be taking a group to Punta Cana, and we were pretty sure that was going to happen," said Stewart.
"On March 11 of 2022 is that going to happen? Probably. But yet again, there's always a little bit more doubt."
'A lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear'
Masks, double vaccinations, testing, mixed vaccines, red zones, vaccine passports and other restrictions — navigating pandemic travel involves a lot of moving and changing parts, Stewart said.
Those of us who are still here are really proud of the fact that we're still here. — Paulette Soloman
"What's required to leave our Island? What's required when you get to Toronto maybe as a connection? What's required maybe when you get to Prague if you're going to Prague, and what's required now when you turn around and come back home?" he said.
"Our role as agents is to make sure ... the right information is given to our partners on all the different destinations that they're travelling to."
It's a similar story at The Travel Store, which has four P.E.I. storefronts.
"Travel advisors have always been the people who have had the knowledge and the expertise about travel destinations, and that continues today," said owner Paulette Soloman. "But now they're learning more about vaccines and vaccine requirements and travel regulations to get into countries."
Soloman purchased the business just three months before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
By March 2020, all its offices were closed and staff scrambled to find ways to get clients stuck around the world back home.
"It was very frightening for everyone, for me as a business owner, for all of our staff. We felt a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear," she said.
"So 19 months later, I think that those of us who are still here are really proud of the fact that we're still here."
'Better times ahead'
Since the pandemic began, travel agents' daily tasks have also changed, said Soloman.
Besides researching travel trends, advisors also research COVID-19 travel requirements. The hunt for prime tourist destinations now includes keeping an eye on what borders are open.
"There's lots of questions. People are just waiting for that door to open to be able to travel again," she said.
"We see new clients coming to us who are looking for that kind of reassurance and information and that kind of support that we can provide."
Stewart Travel Group is experiencing a surge in bookings for escorted travel programs. The group currently has 18 international tours planned for 2022. That's four more than in 2019.
"I think once we start to get on, put our bums in the seats again of aircrafts, I think it's going to get a lot easier and a lot more calming for everyone," he said.
"It's a fascinating, forever changing industry that, of course, will even get more like that as we move forward," said Stewart.