June 17, 2021, Calgary Herald − Varcoe: Federal plan for resuming full travel remains on the runway
Alberta is set to remove public health restrictions on businesses next month due to rising vaccination levels, yet air travel and tourism are stuck in neutral
WestJet announced more plans this week to expand its international flights, connecting Calgary directly to Amsterdam, beginning in August.
The twice-weekly flights on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft are a promising sign for would-be travellers. The company also plans to start flying again to London’s Gatwick airport in July from Calgary for the first time since mid-January.
There’s one possible hitch: ongoing pandemic travel restrictions.
Ottawa still hasn’t brought forward a clear blueprint to reopen the Canada-U.S. border, nor a comprehensive strategy for resuming non-essential air travel to places like London or Amsterdam.
However, as vaccination levels continue to climb and people look to start travelling again, air carriers must plan for the future.
“It’s not just as simple as turning on a light switch and turning flights back on,” WestJet’s Morgan Bell said Wednesday. “There is so much co-ordination behind the scenes to restore routes and to restore plans and to bring people back to work.”
“We’re just being hopeful that restrictions ease and, as more Canadians are vaccinated, we will be able to fly those Dreamliners full.”
While the announcement is encouraging, it also underscores a frustrating situation.
Alberta is set to remove public health restrictions on businesses next month — possibly as soon as July 1 — due to rising vaccination levels, yet air travel and tourism are stuck in neutral.
It’s the equivalent of watching other jets take off to sunny holiday destinations in the middle of winter while your plane is parked on the tarmac.
“We are the world leader in terms of getting first shots into people’s arms … however, we’re world laggards when it is coming to actually having a plan to restore travel, both inside Canada and internationally,” Canadian Chamber of Commerce CEO Perrin Beatty said in an interview.
“We need to catch up.”
Western Canadian premiers are also looking for a detailed strategy from Ottawa, beyond remarks made last week that the federal government will begin to ease its three-day hotel quarantine requirement on travellers coming into the country.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Canada will take a phased approach towards border adjustment and the government is considering letting fully vaccinated individuals enter the country without having to stay in quarantine hotels, noting Ottawa is “aiming for early July” for the proposed changes.
“I fully understand the need for certainty for business and for planning,” she told reporters last week.
“What we are saying is that it’s better now to be slow and cautious … so that we can have a sustained success.”
On Wednesday, federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra told reporters that in the coming days the government will announce further details about the phased reopening and adjustment of travel measures.
Provincial premiers are getting anxious.
Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday his government will remove its advisory against non-essential interprovincial and international travel once Alberta moves into a full reopening without restrictions.
“Albertan’s position is we should facilitate a safe reopening of the U.S. border as soon as we reasonably can,” Kenney told reporters after a meeting of the western Canadian premiers.
“I’d like to see that happen early in July. This is massively holding back our economy.
“We need to exercise some targeted caution on international travel from areas of outbreaks … but there are protocols we can follow, like facilitating easier travel for people who are fully vaccinated.”
A similar message came from Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who underscored the importance of travel for an export-powered economy.
“What we’re asking the federal government for is to communicate to people — Canadians — what their plan is on how we are going to allow for travel because it’s important,” Moe said.
The travel industry has been waiting for months for a plan to be rolled out and companies are already building their summer and fall schedules.
While last week’s announcement from Ottawa holds promise, it lacks clarity on specific dates and details of what will happen next or when the U.S.-Canada border will be reopened to fully vaccinated tourists who want to visit the country.
With information gleaned from travel initiatives in other countries and an expert panel report in Canada that came out earlier this spring that examined COVID-19 testing issues, the public policy matters are well understood, said Mike McNaney, CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents the country’s largest air carriers, including Air Canada and WestJet.
“Now is clearly the time for us to follow what we’re seeing in other countries and follow what we’re seeing at the provincial government level and release a restart plan,” McNaney said.
“Absent the plan from the federal government, both industry and consumers are planning in the dark.”
For the province’s tourism industry, which has spent much of the past 15 months grappling with public health restrictions and a steep drop in revenues, reactivating international travel is essential for long-term recovery.
In places such as Jasper, Lake Louise or Banff, foreign travellers are a critical component of success.
Before the pandemic, there were more than 25,000 tourism businesses operating in the province and spending in the sector topped $8 billion.
Since the pandemic began, the loss of international travel revenue alone has cost the sector an estimated $1.6 billion, according to the Tourism Industry Association of Alberta.
Not surprisingly, international tourists typically spend more money in the province during their visits than Canadian and provincial travellers.
“It’s critical to turn these international taps back on,” said Darren Reeder with the association. “Our tourism economy can‘t survive without international coming back.”
No one wants to throw the borders open without proper rules or regulations. A detailed plan will need to unfold with careful stages.
Yet, as vaccination levels rise around the world, a restart strategy — one that rolls out clear timelines and targets — is overdue.
At the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Beatty has a blunt message for the federal government on the issue: “Get on with it.”