COLUMN: Vacation sales “negligible to nil” with COVID-19 

When I was in the travel business in Toronto decades ago, we used to say that the only business riskier than running a travel company was owning a restaurant.

In the wake of the global pandemic known as Covid-19, no two industries have been harder hit.

For someone like this writer, who spent forty years in the international travel industry, the effect on travel has been difficult to watch.

A local family recently returned home after visiting family in South Korea. Boarding their Toronto-bound flight in Seoul, the family of four was astonished to discover they were the only passengers.

The airline industry resembles the walking dead, with second quarter air traffic down more than 86% from the same period in 2019. Industry watchers expect load factors to climb 62% in 2021, but now believe that it may be 2024 before passenger numbers return to pre-pandemic levels.

Local travel agencies, the ones that are open, say that sales for winter holidays range from negligible to nil. Most blame Canada’s two-week quarantine requirement upon a traveller’s return as the primary obstacle.

“Nothing is more important to me than my clients’ safety,” says Franca De Sena, speaking for Sarnia’s oldest-established travel agency.  But De Sena said she believes that the Canadian government needs to relax the quarantine requirement for travellers returning from destinations that have successfully controlled the virus.

According to major holiday operators such as Sunwing Vacations and Transat Holidays, industry associations such as the Canadian Association of Tour Operators (CATO) and the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) have been busy lobbying the federal government to do just that.

Prospects for any immediate relaxation of the quarantine requirement look grim, however, in the face of rising cases.

In the meantime, travel companies and their suppliers are doing what they can to encourage travel.

Local agent Holly McBean of Holly McBean Travel says that the Dominican Republic is extending free health care coverage to visitors. Commercial Director Nicole Bursey of Transat Holidays has introduced a $59 “Option Flex” plan allowing travellers to make last-minute schedule changes.

Sunwing Vacations, knowing that many business people and students are working or studying from home, has launched a “Work from the beach” program. The longer-stay holidays in the Dominican Republic, Cancun and other sun destinations offer low prices, complimentary access to business centres at selected resorts, quiet areas for video conferencing, and more.

One thing is certain: when the virus is behind us, there will be an immense surge in travel due to pent-up demand.

The question is, can the industry survive until that happens?