How Has Travel Changed Since the Start of the Pandemic?

Author: Hillary Di Menna

In early 2020, Canadians were travelling internationally in record numbers, hoping to take a break from Canada’s early winter months, and then the borders closed March 15. “No way can an industry plan for an entire stoppage for two years,” says Collette Tours Canada’s Brett Walker. Collette is the oldest guided travel company in North America and Walker has worked with them, overseeing international travel, for over 30 years. Walker is also the Volunteer Chair of the Canadian Tour Operators Association (CATO), a not-for-profit organization representing trusted Canadian brand tour operators. Walker had overseen travel around the first and second Gulf War, as well as through 9-11 and says no one could imagine anything worse could happen to the travel industry, and then, “A pandemic is a pandemic; no one has experienced this.”

 When international borders began to close and Canadians were in need of getting home Walker says, “It hit us like a bomb. There was no rule book, no manual.” Walker says that these efforts in repatriation “was the obligation of the government, but it was the good will and responsibility of the industry.” Customers who had originally travelled with one airline were returning on another, and a lot of the time this cost was absorbed by the industry. In cases where the industry could not bring travellers back on their own, such was the case when Peru closed its borders and airspace, the industry worked with government and brought people home.

Though Canadians’ domestic travel is up, international travel in 2021 is happening less than it was in 2020. Last year, travel was trending down 82% Walker estimates that this year it is down 92%. Currently, Canada advises against all non-essential travel according to the government’s ‘Travel Advice and Advisories,’ this means Canadians can still travel, but it is with the acceptance of the risk of going against government warning. Travellers are confused of what is and is not allowed when it comes to travel and those within the travel industry are as well, since there is no clear plan by the government on what Walker describes as a meaningful return to travel.

The travel and tourism industry was one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. The industry is now 18% less its workforce. According to a June 2021 CATO report, ‘Economic Impact Analysis of the Canadian Tour Operators,’ women made up 73% of the tour operators’ workforce in 2019, “increasing the risk of placing further impacts on women during the pandemic.” Still, Walker assures, “We’ll make it to the other side.”

Vaccination rates are rising, and vaccinations are a Number 1 factor for those considering travelling again. Walker predicts consumer choices will centre around travelling with trusted brands and keeping a closer eye on terms and conditions. People want to know that not only is their money protected, but that they themselves are protected, too. “If this happens again you want to make sure you’re not on your own,” says Walker. “We can supply sunny days and nice beaches, but if anything untoward were to happen, you want to know you’ll be taken care of.”

Travellers who want to be cared for in the best fashion are advised to look for the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) label, when finding a trusted brand. All CATO members are TICO certified. Walker also suggests booking with a travel agent, saying their service is well worth it. When finding a travel agent, look for the TICO label as well, “All sellers of travel should be registered with TICO.”

Though it is unclear when borders will re-open for nonessential international travel, Walker says the industry will make it. Travel trends are changing, too. While Italy, Spain, Ireland and the UK, Mexico, Caribbean and Central America remain top sellers, there are up and coming destinations such as Croatia and Balkans, Baltic states, Africa, and Columbia. Whether travellers go with old favourites or are aiming for something new, Walker believes that consumers will remember the care they were shown when needing to get back home, when choosing who they travel with.