Winter wonderland or hot, hot, heat?

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

But is this the year to embrace the cold instead of soaking up the sun?

  By: Ann Ruppenstein   

Winter is coming!

In any given year, the first snowfall of the season always signifies good news for the travel industry as clients across the country start dreaming of escaping the cold. But with the ongoing pandemic and travel advisories still in place, could this be the time for clients to embrace the winter wonderland in Canada instead of escaping for the hot, hot, heat?

Photo: Michelle Valberg

There’s no place like home for Sheila Kemp.

During a time when self isolation requirements make it challenging for clients to travel internationally, the founder of Kemp Travel Group is promoting unique Canadian destinations and experiences like polar bear tours in Churchill and northern lights tours in the Northwest Territories.

“Many Canadians, including many of our clients, have not experienced the wonder of Canada,” says Kemp, who founded the agency in 1982. “Canada has so much to offer and now is the best time to explore our own country. Kemp Travel has been encouraging our clients through social media to explore our own backyard and we have developed our own escorted Canadian tours to offer to our clients for 2021.”

Along with quintessentially Canadian travel getaways, the company started advertising things like RV and boat rentals close to home.

“[This is] something we haven’t done much of in the past to encourage people to get outside and explore,” she says. 

Although Kemp Travel is seeing an uptick in inquiries from clients about heading south, she says the 14-day self isolation on return is a deal breaker for people who aren’t retired or working from home.

“There are a lot of people waiting in the hopes that this will be lifted,” she adds. “Travel is a gift and until it is taken away you don’t realize how much you truly miss it. For many, this pandemic is a chance to recharge and spend quality time with friends and family. Our hope is that in 2021 we can travel freely again.”

When it comes to winter, Leah Holt is going to grin and bear it.

The travel advisor behind Go Travel with Leah is hosting a group departure to Churchill, Manitoba for a polar bear expedition.

“Business has been extremely slow, so I have had to be creative with my niche being groups,” says Holt, who has kept busy by going back to supply teaching this year. “I have found selling future travel to be quite a challenge as it’s so unpredictable.”

In order for potential clients to consider booking international trips again, she believes it will take a change to the Canadian government’s 14-day self isolation policy upon return to Canada.

“There has got to be a way for them to allow travel to countries where COVID cases are at a bare minimum and not enforce the two week quarantine upon return,” she says. “Rapid tests could be our answer. This is what many countries in Europe are doing presently.”

The policy has also made it difficult for Holt to embark on international Fam trips for the job.

“I will jump on the first Fam invitation I get once I don’t have to quarantine upon return to Canada,” she says. “I currently have two Fams booked for November, but as it stands right now I will need to cancel both because I can’t travel with a doctor — my husband — living in the same house. Our provincial health checklist for anyone working in the medical field asks specifically if you have had contact with someone who has been out of the country. Answering yes to this question means that you cannot see patients.”

Holt also had previously rebooked a few clients for holidays in November, itineraries that now have to get cancelled or changed again because of ongoing restrictions.

“It’s very frustrating to have to look at cancelling or changing packages again with no compensation for our time,” she notes. “I can’t wait to be the travel agent I used to be, busy planning exciting itineraries for my clients and exploring the world myself.”

Kim Hartlen is thinking inside the bubble.

Last month the Sackville, NS based travel advisor hosted a wellness and wine retreat in PEI with friends.

“Promoting travel within Canada has been the main focus for so many of us and where I live inside the Atlantic Bubble we are exploring more in our bubble and even in our own province,” she says, noting that there are so many unique locations to visit within our own provinces and territories. “Wellness retreats and wine tours are very popular.”

As for winter bookings, she says it’s slow right now and many clients are waiting to see if anything changes with the 14-day self isolation policy.

“To go away for one week and need three weeks off for most people is not possible,” she explains.

As long as the 14-day self-isolation requirements remains in place, Mike Allard of Mallard Travel suspects bookings will continue to be soft or virtually non-existent for winter 2020-2021 travel.   

“Mallard Travel has had a handful of clients’ book cruises and All-Inclusive vacations from April 2021 onward but there are little to no bookings prior to April 2021,” he says. “Many clients have reached out to say once the quarantine is lifted, they are likely to book depending on the current COVID-19 numbers in each country and/or ports of call.”

Allard notes that even their Snowbird clients are respecting the Canada-US border closure.

“99% have indicated that they will likely forgo any travel to the USA this winter in light of the troubling amount of COVID-19 cases that continue to grow in most of the usual Snowbird destinations,” he says. “A few have looked at flights versus drive options but those are few and far between.”

In the meantime, some clients have reached out for domestic recommendations.

“A few have really enjoyed getting to discover their own backyard so to speak,” Allard says. “Canada has so much to offer travellers and it’s great to see the more adventurous taking full advantage and getting to discover more of this beautiful country. If the Atlantic bubble were not in place, I suspect many more might have travelled this fall to our beautiful East Coast.”

However, the Sudbury-based advisor points out that travel is still quite limited in Canada with only a few provinces open to travellers from Ontario. 

“Initially a number of clients reached out for information on the East Coast for a drive or fly vacation but with the Atlantic travel bubble still in place the majority abandoned those plans,” he says. “It’s been a challenge as many of the outstanding destinations even in Ontario have been impacted with closures and reduced services offered so the majority of Mallard Travel clients have opted to stay very close to home this summer and fall… The minute it is safe to travel, I’m wheels up!”

In order for bookings to improve on a short-term basis, Linda Toth-Winterkorn believes rapid testing is key to aiding recovery for both domestic trips and travel down south this winter.

“We know that many of our clients are waiting for the elimination of the dreaded 14-day quarantine upon return and have missed their March Break and Easter south vacations,” says Toth-Winterkorn of Northstar Travel & Associates. “They’ve expressed that they are hopeful for travel this winter with the safe relaxation of government travel restrictions.”

Similarly, her colleague Lynda Dennis feels the 14-day self isolation requirements and the lack of a vaccine is preventing many clients from embarking on trips.

As for current bookings, the bulk of their inquiries are for the Caribbean and domestically for British Columbia.

“We’re happy to say we have sold travel, but the numbers are nothing like they were pre-pandemic, not even close,” says Toth-Winterkorn, noting that bookings are for 2021 with flexible terms and insurance in place. “When asked about COVID-19 numbers in their preferred destinations, they are very mindful of how each location is handling entry requirements and their current status with COVID-19 cases. They also look to us for keeping them updated.”

Dennis says the current restrictions are also making them stay closer to home.

“We’ve had the opportunity to go on multiple Fams and would go in a heartbeat,” Dennis says. “The idea of being travel ambassadors to show our clients all the safety measures and protocols that our airlines and suppliers have put in place would be fantastic. It’s the two week quarantine upon return that holds us back.”

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