Air Canada has hired social-media influencers to encourage Canadians to fly on non-essential vacation travel in spite of federal guidelines that urge people to stay home as cases of COVID-19 spike across the country.
The social influencers being paid by Air Canada Vacations are promoting leisure travel inside the country and to international destinations.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced changes to a pandemic-related sick leave program that will deny benefits to people who travel abroad on vacation.
“No one should be vacationing abroad right now,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday. “You need to take this seriously.”
Mr. Trudeau said Canadians who take non-essential trips do so at their own risk, against federal guidance, and will be required to show a negative COVID-19 test before returning effective Jan. 7.
The domestic airline industry has criticized the new testing rule. The International Air Transport Association called it “callous and impractical,” and said requirements should be loosened for those who test negative.
One of the social influencers hired by Air Canada is Toronto-based Daniel Reyes, who uses Instagram and his blog to promote the airline’s travel and vacation packages.
“We no longer live in March 2020, and leisure travel can and is happening safely,” Mr. Reyes wrote in a Dec. 1 posting about a holiday he planned to take mid-month to Vancouver. “Why Air Canada Vacations? Because I feel completely safe in their hands.”
Mr. Reyes lauded Air Canada for putting safety first, saying its planes are thoroughly cleaned and sanitized, have HEPA filtration systems that capture 99.9 per cent of airborne particles, and customers must wear masks.
“Yes the world is different, and thankfully so is travel,” he wrote. “If you don’t want to travel, you don’t have to. But if you have an opportunity to and the occasion presents itself, Air Canada has made sure that you can do so in a safe manner.”
Mr. Reyes posted pictures of restaurants where he ate and sites he visited during his four-day trip to Vancouver in mid-December. He was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday.
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline uses social-media influencers as part of its broader marketing program, “and to reach audiences traditional media do not penetrate,” he said. “At present, we do not have any new influencer engagements planned.”
Lorne Wiesenfeld, vice-dean of postgraduate medical education at the University of Ottawa’s medical school, said it is unwise to travel, especially since two COVID-19 variants emerged that are highly transmissible.
“It is an unnecessary risk, particularly with the new variants that have come out of the United Kingdom and South Africa,” he said. “We don’t know what the actual risk is given these new strains ... and with a population that is largely unvaccinated at this point, I would advise people not to travel unless there are important reasons to do so. I don’t think taking a vacation or other non-essential travel is a reason to go.”
A spokesman for Transport Minister Marc Garneau said on Tuesday that Canadians must avoid non-essential travel, especially as the country faces record increases in COVID-19 cases and provincial lockdowns, and hospitals are reaching capacity. More than 16,000 people in Canada and more than 1.8 million worldwide have died after catching the airborne virus, which can be spread by people without symptoms.
“We are reaching dangerous case numbers in areas across the country,” Mr. Garneau’s press secretary, Allison St-Jean, said in a statement to The Globe and Mail when asked about Air Canada’s campaign. “Everyone has a role to play to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and we want to remind Canadians that travel restrictions and measures can be amended as necessary and on short notice.”
An Instagrammer who goes by the name Mitch_Explores posts for Air Canada and other companies along with his travel partner, Jennifer Fast. The two posted photos from Mexico over the Christmas break promoting Air Canada Vacations and Iberostar Hotels and Resorts.
“If you follow best practices, there are really good infrastructure and procedures to travel, despite the social media blow back. It is possible to … have responsible decision making while traveling, and adhering to quarantining guidelines upon return,” Mitch_Explores wrote.
“If you’ve been wondering if travelling again is right for you, be sure to follow along and if you have any questions for us, please shoot us over a DM - we’re open to answering any questions!” Ms. Fast wrote on Instagram.
Neither responded to messages from The Globe.
Ken Wong, a marketing professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., questioned the strategy of hiring people to promote travel while countries are telling people to stay home.
“You’re trying to convince people it is safe to travel at this point in time when our Prime Minister has told people that if you go out of the country, you’re not entitled to [sick leave] benefits or anything else,” Prof. Wong said. “You know, it’s just silly.”
He said there is little need to promote travel. “I cannot think of a bigger waste of money by Air Canada,” Prof. Wong said. “After a year of lockdown, you don’t need to stimulate anybody to travel. The moment restrictions are lifted, you’re going to see a flood of travel like we have not seen before.”
Montreal-based leisure airline Air Transat and Calgary’s WestJet Airlines Ltd. stopped using paid influencers on social media at the beginning of the pandemic, spokespeople said. Both have still been promoting travel on social media. Sunwing Airlines Inc. did not address questions sent by e-mail.
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