Hundreds of Thousands of Canadians Travel Abroad Despite Omicron

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Despite growing concerns around the world last fall about the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, Sandy Long and her husband left on November 28 for a 10-day vacation in Mexico.

Long said they felt comfortable traveling as they planned to take strict security measures. Additionally, the couple hadn’t been overseas in two years due to the pandemic and were eager to get away.

“Life is short,” said Long, 58, of Richmond, British Columbia. “We needed to feel some warmth [and] We really missed Mexico.”

It seems many Canadians have a similar attitude towards travel these days despite the fast and furious spread of Omicron, which prompted Canada to re-post its advisory against non-essential international travel last month.

Statistics Canada counted 742,417 arrivals of Canadian air passengers returning from abroad in December.

When adjusted for recent changes in air travel tracking, this total is almost six times the number of arrivals for the same month in 2020, and more than half the total for December 2019 before the pandemic.

The increase in international travel is expected to continue: there were 216,752 Canadian air passenger arrivals in Canada during the week of January 3-9, according to the latest data posted by the Canada Border Services Agency.

Lesley Keyter, owner of The Travel Lady Agency in Calgary, said customers are booking trips despite the threat from Omicron because they want to start traveling again. (submitted by Lesley Keyter)

Travel agency owner Lesley Keyter said that since October the number of customers booking trips had jumped 30-40% compared to the same period last year.

She said popular destinations for her clients, most of whom are aged 50 or older, include Europe, Mexico and Costa Rica. When Omicron cases began to rise in December, Keyter said some customers canceled their trips, but most kept their travel plans.

“People say, ‘Listen, we only have so much time on this planet.…We’ve been postponing travel for two years now, I don’t want to put it off anymore,’ said Keyter, owner of The Travel Lady. Agency in Calgary.

She said travelers also feel confident with the added protection of their COVID-19 vaccine and booster. Because Omicron is so transmissible and more able to evade vaccines, even vaccinated people can become infected. However, they are less likely to end up in hospital.

Risk of testing positive abroad

But even if infected travelers show only mild symptoms, they will still face obstacles getting home.

To enter Canada, air passengers must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure. If a traveler tests positive, they must wait at least 11 days before boarding a return flight.

Brennan Watson of Milverton, Ont., tested positive for COVID-19 while vacationing in Ireland. (submitted by Brennan Watson)

Brennan Watson, 26, of Milverton, Ont., tested positive on Dec. 28 while traveling in Ireland.

He was due to return home the following day, but instead had to find a place to self-isolate in Belfast. Due to Canadian rules at the time – which have now changed – Watson had to wait 15 days before he could return home.

“It was very stressful at first,” he said. “It was a bit of a panic just thinking I’m stuck here.”

Brennan said the delay cost him dearly: he missed 11 days of work as an electrician and spent $2,000 on extra expenses, including another plane ticket home.

“There’s nothing you can really do about it,” he said. “It’s just something I didn’t even think would happen.”

WATCH | Canada again advises against foreign travel:

Canada warns against non-essential travel abroad as Omicron spreads

The federal government is urging Canadians to stay home or, if they must travel, to plan ahead for quarantine and ensure they have travel insurance. 3:14

Travel insurance broker Martin Firestone said travelers can avoid such unexpected costs by purchasing trip interruption insurance. He said most of his customers are now opting for the cover which will reimburse travelers for some or all of their costs if they test positive and need to extend their trip.

“Travel Interruption – which used to be very rare [purchased product] – is now added to all emergency medical plans because customers are terribly worried about testing positive,” said Firestone of Travel Secure.

“It’s the new world we’re living in right now with the pandemic.”

Flight cancellations

Unexpected flight cancellations are another hurdle travelers may face.

Since December, thousands of flights in Canada and United States were canceled for pandemic-related reasons, including crew members who were sick from the virus.

This month, Air Canada Vacations Announcement it will suspend some flights to sun destinations between January 24 and April 30. After cutting 15% of its January flights, WestJet announced on Tuesday it will cancel 20% of its February flights.

Long said she and her husband enjoyed their trip to Mexico so much that they planned to return in the coming weeks. However, the couple recently canceled their plans due to concerns over flight cancellations.

“It’s uncertainty right now,” Long said. “I don’t want to go down there and then get stuck.”

However, she is still optimistic about a trip the couple booked in May to Spain.

Despite testing positive on a trip, Brennan hopes to return to Ireland this summer – even if the pandemic has not abated by then.

“I spent a year and a half of my life not seeing family or friends,” he said. “I’m not going to stop living my life.”

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