Canadian travel industry associations are urging federal policy makers to consider relaxing testing restrictions for foreign travellers as other countries start to roll back requirements for visitors.
The greater availability of rapid tests around the world and higher vaccination rates should allow the government to streamline the testing process for visitors coming to Canada, yet Canada continues to have some of the strictest travel policies among G7 countries, travel groups say.
Britain is the latest country to drop most of its entry requirements.
While some provinces have reduced testing and isolation requirements, industry experts say Canada still has some of the strictest travel policies in the Group of Seven – which also includes France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States – and the restrictions are deterring travellers.
“As we watch the loosening of other requirements, such as isolation periods, it would seem that loosening of requirements around travel should follow suit,” said Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, or TIAC, the national private-sector advocate for the industry. “We would love to get to the point where you only need to do a rapid test on arrival, then carry on.”
According to Ms. Potter, recent changes to provincial and federal policy – such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement on Wednesday that the federal government will ramp up its distribution of rapid tests this month – suggest it may be time to determine if the science around COVID-19 and Canada’s travel policies are still in alignment.
“The question that we ask, and that we don’t have an answer to, is that if we are using rapid tests to mitigate community spread, do we need to rely on PCR tests to mitigate spread by travel?”
Currently, fully vaccinated travellers to Canada, or Canadians re-entering the country, are required to take a PCR test 72 hours before arrival in Canada, and may be asked to take another PCR test at the airport and isolate until they receive results. Unvaccinated non-citizens are not allowed to enter Canada, while Canadians who are not fully vaccinated must quarantine for 14 days after arrival. Full vaccination is also required by most airlines for travellers leaving Canada.
Some countries have already adopted new measures in response to the changing medical evidence. On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that vaccinated visitors to England will no longer be required to take a predeparture test, can take a rapid test on arrival instead of a PCR test, and will not be required to isolate until they receive their results. Scotland has since announced similar measures.
“When the Omicron variant was first identified, we rightly introduced travel restrictions to slow its arrival in our country,” Mr. Johnson said, speaking in Parliament. “But now Omicron is so prevalent, these measures are having limited impact on the growth in cases while continuing to pose significant costs to our travel industry.”
Britain is not the only country relaxing its travel restrictions. Mexico does not require a negative test to enter the country, and instead asks travellers only to fill out a health declaration form. Travellers to Mexico are also not required to undertake any isolation upon arrival.
Israel, too, announced on Thursday it will lift its ban on travel to and from a list of “red list” countries, including Canada, implemented mid-December over fears of Omicron spread.
“What we are asking of the government is to make decisions based on science and data, and not politics and optics,” said Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies.
She said countries will have to figure out how to balance Omicron spread and the economic impact. Health care systems around the world have different capacities, she said, so restrictions should follow accordingly.
One area of capacity at its limit in Canada is testing, Ms. Paradis said. “And you have to really question about where we’re using our testing tools.”
Access to reliable testing and quick test turnarounds vary across the country, meaning visitors could be expected to isolate for a significant chunk of their vacation. According to Ms. Potter, some tests done in Calgary are being sent to labs in Ontario, meaning travellers could be waiting up to 72 hours to get results back. This is not only off-putting for travellers, she said, but damaging to the businesses that serve them.
“That means isolating for three days of a week-long holiday in some cases,” Ms. Potter said. “It is causing people to cancel their plans right up to the last minute, which makes it very difficult for businesses to plan staff appropriately.”
Annually, travel to Canada adds $102-billion to Canada’s economy. Currently, the industry is bringing in just half that number, according to Ms. Potter. This means loss of work for some of the 1.8 million Canadians whose jobs depend on the economic activity generated by travel and tourism.
Meanwhile, other countries are taking a more cautious approach.
Starting Jan. 14, all passengers flying directly to China from Canada must take a nucleic acid test, a type of test similar to a PCR test, seven days before boarding, in addition to the previously mandated nucleic acid and IgM antibody tests taken within two days before boarding. Passengers will be required to isolate during the two days prior to travelling except to take their tests. In October, China reduced the number of weekly inbound flights to just over 400, one-fifth of flights from the year before.
Hong Kong added Canada to its list of countries included in a two-week travel ban in early January, and is holding a cruise ship carrying 2,500 passengers at port for COVID-19 testing after nine passengers were found to be connected to an outbreak.
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