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Icelandair aircraft in flight.Icelandair

A double dose of Pfizer’s finest in her system and her wanderlust fit to burst, Tamara Freeland says she was “this close” to booking a long-awaited summer vacation to Iceland on June 21, when the Government of Canada announced that fully vaccinated Canadians would be spared from both post-travel quarantine and Day 8 testing as of July 5.

Requiring only a vaccination certificate to explore the volcano-strewn Nordic nation, which lifted all domestic COVID restrictions on June 26, there was only one thing standing in Freeland’s way: The enduring federal advisory to “avoid non-essential travel outside Canada until further notice.”

“On one hand, the quarantine changes suddenly made travel possible for me,” the 50-something resident of Oakville, Ont., says. “On the other hand, the government was telling me not to travel.” Throw in pandemic horror stories about stranded travellers, lost trip deposits and withheld refunds, and Freeland says she “didn’t know what to think.”

The turning point came when Freeland phoned Icelandair customer service later that day. In short order, she was directed to a barcode-based website for booking the COVID test she’s required to take before returning to Canada, and was informed that the airline would rebook her flight back to Canada, free of charge, should she test positive.

“At that point, it seemed rude not to visit,” she says, laughing.

Icelandair’s new rebooking policy, it turns out, is just the tip of the iceberg. Now that Canada has joined scores of other countries in gradually relaxing travel restrictions as vaccination rates rise, airlines, hotels, cruise lines and tour operators around the world are bending over backward to entice Canadians to dust off their passports.

No vax, no service

With COVID-19 immunity becoming both a requirement and a motivator for international travel, hygiene and physical-distancing protocols are giving way to proof-of-vaccination policies.

The Globus group of tour operators, for instance, requires all travellers aged 12 and up to be fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to joining the Colorado-based company’s international tours, river cruises and independent vacation packages. The new protocol takes effect on July 15.

Among cruise lines, proof of vaccination is becoming the new normal. Windstar Cruises, which resumed operations on June 19 out of Athens, is taking precautions a step further by ensuring that all crew on its six yachts join passengers in being fully vaccinated.

While international hotel chains such as Accor and Marriott strive to vaccinate all staff – the latter is giving employees in Canada and the U.S. four hours of pay to get the jab – some boutique properties, such as the luxurious Lodge at Chaa Creek in the Belizean jungle, are already there.

Flexibility comes first

Among cruise lines, proof of vaccination is becoming the new normal. Windstar Cruises, which resumed operations on June 19 out of Athens, is taking precautions a step further by ensuring that all crew on its six yachts join passengers in being fully vaccinated.

According to the Travelweek 2021 Consumer Survey conducted in June, “flexible change/cancellation policies” were cited by 51.8 per cent of respondents as the most important considerations for booking travel.

No wonder the travel industry has come to resemble a flexibility contest, with just about every major airline giving passengers the option of postponing or cancelling summer flights free of charge.

The new “Book with Confidence” policy from Toronto-based G Adventures, which allows travellers to cancel and rebook trips up to 14 days prior to departure, is being echoed in one form or another by many tour and resort operators. The Sandals and Beaches chains, for instance, are purchasing cancellation insurance on behalf of guests as part of their reservations, while Club Med guests who cancel bookings made before July 31 will receive full refunds as long as their flights were booked with Air Canada, Air Transat or WestJet. Rocky Mountaineer is offering 110-per-cent credits to guests impacted by delays, as well as providing a price guarantee for delayed packages to ensure travellers can book a similar scenic rail tour at the same price even if third-party hotels or tour operators raise their rates.

Apps abound

Announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in June and updated several times since, the two-track proof-of-vaccination system offered by the ArriveCAN app allows travellers returning to Canada by land or air to digitally provide contact and quarantine information before and after re-entry.

Air Canada’s trial of a new digital tool, meanwhile, is allowing passengers on flights from Frankfurt to Toronto and Montreal to scan, upload and verify COVID-19 test results using the carrier’s mobile app. The airline plans to roll out the solution across its network later this summer pending results of the trial, and introduce new capabilities so customers can prevalidate proof of vaccination.

Then there’s IATA’s new Travel Pass app, which is being tested by Air France on flights between the Montréal-Trudeau and Paris-Charles de Gaulle airports until July 15. First announced in November, 2020, as a way to securely manage and share testing and vaccine information among governments, airlines, laboratories and travellers, the app informs passengers about the measures they need to take prior to travel, provides details on where they can get tested, and enables them to securely share their test and vaccination results with the appropriate parties.

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