Swaying palms, warm Caribbean waters, luxurious resorts, and only a single active case of COVID-19. A vacation to the island nation of St. Lucia, which is now possible for Canadians after the June 4 lifting of restrictions on international air arrivals, may sound blissful right about now. If only there weren’t so many reasons to go another year.
While the exclusion of COVID-19 from travel health insurance policies and a mandatory two-week quarantine for returning Canadians remain the most compelling reasons to favour domestic getaways over international ones, just about every aspect of going anywhere is being affected by the pandemic. Here’s what you need to know to roam away from home this summer:
Before you go
Since March 14, the federal government’s official global advisory to “avoid non-essential travel outside of Canada” has been at the root of the aforementioned insurance and quarantine deterrents. But it does not prevent Canadians from vacationing abroad. “The decision to travel is the sole responsibility of the individual,” says Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Angela Savard, who was unable to provide any guidance on when the advisory might be lifted or revised.
For globetrotters willing to take their chances, the list of nations that are reopening, or announcing plans to do so, is growing longer by the day. It’s no coincidence that France, Spain, the United States, China and Italy – the five countries with the most annual international arrivals overall – are all easing inbound restrictions, with tourism-dependent destinations such as Iceland, the Bahamas, Belize and Greece doing likewise.
Canada remains a mixed bag for domestic vacations. As of June 4, all non-essential travel to Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and all three territories was prohibited. Nova Scotia and Manitoba, meanwhile, required visitors to self-quarantine upon arrival for 14 days.
Still, with no domestic travel restrictions in place for Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia or Alberta, and with non-essential air travel between Canada, the United States and Mexico never having been banned – the continuing border closing applies only to land crossings – there are plenty of destinations for vacationers to choose from with many more slated to be viable soon.
As well as checking a destination’s status on its official tourism website, prospective vacationers can turn to travel agents for information on most aspects of trips. However, faced with the same pandemic-fuelled challenges and uncertainties as their clients, many agents are hesitant to provide advice that could turn out to be incorrect. “It is a rapidly changing landscape with new information coming from health authorities, governments, travel suppliers and destinations every day,” says Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies.
Getting there (and back)
Airports have been much less crowded during the pandemic – Toronto Pearson’s usual 1,200-plus daily departures numbered fewer than 80 on June 4 – but physical distancing in departure lounges, baggage claim areas and security and customs lines are likely to boost airport transit times as travellers return. Combine this with earlier gate closings and the suspension of services such as terminal shuttles, and arriving at the airport extra-early sounds like good advice.
But showing up early can only achieve so much. With all air operators required to conduct visual and questionnaire-based health checks on travellers before they board flights in Canada, anyone presenting or reporting COVID-19 symptoms may have to delay their trip by 14 days (unless they provide a medical certificate indicating that their symptoms are not related to COVID-19). In short, a sudden cough could ground vacation plans in a hurry. The same goes for same-day flight cancellations, which have occurred at an unprecedented rate since mid-March.
At the same time, many airports are holding arriving flights on the tarmac or at the gate to manage the flow of passengers, who must then run another gauntlet of screening measures that will likely include another round of medical testing. The suspension of inflight and airport comforts such as meal services and lounges sure seems like an afterthought these days.
Beyond spending extra time in hyper-vigilant transit, vacationers departing from any of the four Canadian airports currently scheduling international flights – Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver – may have to be tested for COVID-19 before they leave. Like several destinations, St. Lucia requires visitors to provide medically certified negative tests upon arrival.
Iceland and Greece, meanwhile, are conducting airport testing when visitors arrive. Until July 1, the start of the third phase of Greece’s month-long reopening, passengers who test negative must still self-quarantine for seven days. Should they test positive, they will be quarantined under supervision for 14 days.
Many rental car, rail, bus and ferry services have been suspended or reduced their services and taken preventive measures such as requiring passengers to wear masks, so do your research ahead of time. Taxis and ride-sharing operations are likely to be prolific – and may be cleaner than ever owing to new health and safety regulations.
Where to stay, eat and drink
Hotels, home-sharing services, campgrounds and dining and drinking establishments appear to be more widely operational in countries and Canadian regions that are reopening. The four Fairmont Hotels & Resorts properties in heavily visited Banff, Jasper and Whistler, for instance, have been open since June 1.
Owing to their relatively controlled environments, packaged resort holidays’ prospects are notably bright. Air Transat, for one, is offering all-inclusive week-long trips to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba and Mexico as of July 2, with new bookings made by June 30 able to be changed at no charge. And Club Med is reopening its Sandpiper Bay property in Florida on June 12, with a free cancellation policy for stays booked up to December.
Still, the hotel, resort and camping experience will be very different over the summer. In St. Lucia, for instance, guests’ temperatures will be taken at mealtimes, quarantine facilities will be available on-site, and amenities that cannot ensure physical distancing, such as swimming pools, will be closed or limited. At the aforementioned Fairmont and Club Med properties, the respective “All Stay Well” and “Safe Together” programs are two examples of the dizzying array of new initiatives, such as the World Travel Tourism & Tourism Council’s “Safe Travels” stamp and Airbnb’s “Enhanced Cleaning Initiative,” that focus on health and safety.
Things to do
From Dutch museums and Florida theme parks to B.C.’s Sea-to-Sky Gondola and Quebec’s Parc Omega drive-through wildlife preserve, the floodgates of physically distanced fun, curiosity, art and adventure are opening around the world. That said, many diversions are drastically changed or diminished. Camping facilities across Canada’s national parks, for instance, will remain closed until at least June 21, while museums around the world are limiting admission, requiring visitors to wear masks, and nixing audio guides and group tours.
Guided tours of Canadian and international destinations, which can help alleviate logistical headaches, are restarting in lockstep with the reopening of their home bases. Reykjavik-based Hidden Iceland, for instance, is already offering day trips, and even an overnight “Living with Locals” experience, in advance of the country’s scheduled international reopening on June 14.
But the trouble is, not all reopenings are created equal, says Frederic Dimanche, director of the Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Pointing to poorly managed beaches in Venice, Italy, and Bournemouth, England, Dimanche says local governments and tourism officials “must do a better job at managing tourist flows and at implementing hygiene and distancing measures that remain the basis for COVID-19 risk management. The danger of poor planning and execution will be that one, we are not able to generate the trust that most people will need to travel again, and two, that we will have a significant second wave that will further impact our lives and the economy.”
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