Canada’s Travel Industry Bracing for Omicron Fallout

Brian Robertson, President, Canada West, Direct Travel
Brian Robertson, President, Canada West, Direct Travel

Open Jaw caught up with Brian Robertson, President, Canada West, Direct Travel, at Tuesday’s Travel Marketplace just as he was getting miked. We asked if the retailer is experiencing any impact from the Omicron virus to date.

“It’s a setback for sure, but with all the government restrictions in place and high vaccination rates, it isn’t a major concern at this time”, said Robertson.

“We’re waiting to see if Minister Alghabra implements any additional regulations which may have an effect on travel.”

There is unquestionably a queasy feeling as the virus roller coaster gears up again. Despite Canada banning flights from seven countries in southern Africa, new cases of the variant are being caught daily. The good news is this underscores the fact that the system is working.

“A Sucker Punch”

For independent travel advisor Kristin Hoogendoorn, Omicron is another blow to the Canadian travel industry.

“This variant feels like a sucker punch for our little tiny sector that keeps getting battered and if people cancel, I don’t know how much longer that we would be able to survive,” she told Global News.

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

Skift reports that analysts are now expecting the global travel industry’s recovery to be pushed back by at least a year due to the new variant as well as rising COVID-19 cases across the world along with additional border restrictions.

Holding Out Hope

Richard Smart, President and CEO of the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) told Global News he is holding onto hope the recovery of Canada’s travel industry will continue since vaccination rates are high.

“We remain concerned but … cautiously optimistic that we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We expect 2022 to be a very good year.”

Smart added that he hasn’t seen a rush of consumers wishing to change vacation plans yet, but also acknowledged the restrictions Canada placed on those arriving from southern African countries over the weekend could have a lasting impact.

“It all comes down to consumer confidence and anything that impacts consumers’ confidence to travel is going to have an effect on the travel industry,” Smart said.

“An announcement like the one that we saw over the weekend has already got the waters rippling.”

Harry Taylor, interim President and CEO of WestJet Group, told BNN Bloomberg that right now, it is too early to tell if Omicron will have an impact on Canada’s travel industry recovery.

At the moment, there are fewer travel restrictions than at the beginning of the pandemic, and Taylor mentioned that governments around the world need more data to fully understand the impact of Omicron.

Taylor emphasized the need to look out for the safety of air travellers to maintain travel confidence.

Recovery Woes

The news of the emerging variant comes just as Smart and others in the travel industry noted an increase in Canadian travel confidence.

In early NOV 2021, Air Canada said that domestic leisure bookings were recovering and people were heading to “sun destinations” again.

Taylor highlighted the industry’s recovery beginning in summer 2021, and projected a strong recovery through holiday season and into 2022. He highlighted that sun destination bookings are going “extremely strongly,” with full recovery expected by “next fall.”

Banning Travel Bans

While there is the possibility of future travel restrictions that would hamper the industry’s recovery, health experts are calling for testing and contract tracing measures to be used instead of travel bans.

“I really think that’s what we need to focus on,” said epidemiologist Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine in Saskatoon. “Testing, tracing [and] if needed, isolating our travellers more than any kind of carte blanche in our travel bans.”

To Dr. Muhajarine, travel bans are “very crude, sledgehammer-types of measures,” and more data-driven measures such as testing and contact tracing are needed.

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