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’More work for no pay’: Travel agents say they're in trouble after slew of trip cancellations

Travel agency organizations warn of 'devastating winter' as many are ineligible for federal supports

people hug outside of the Ottawa airport June 16, 2021.

Ottawa announced this week that fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents will be able to enter the country without having to quarantine, beginning the night of July 5. But the news still left many people with questions about who would and would not qualify for the eased restrictions. In this photo, people hug outside of the Ottawa airport June 16, 2021.

Photo: Francis Ferland/CBC News

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When the federal government prohibited flights from South Africa in response to Omicron (new window), Kerwin Dougan took calls at odd hours to help his clients navigate a patchwork of travel bans and COVID-19 testing requirements.

Since then, he says, the situation for travel agents like himself has only gotten worse.

Right now, we're just trying to survive, said Dougan, the co-owner of Voyages G Travel in Gatineau, Que.

Dougan and other area travel agents told CBC Ottawa that, after two lean years, a combination of holiday trip cancellations, travel rules and lacklustre financial support is putting their businesses in jeopardy — just as the industry appeared to be recovering.

Omicron reversed brief travel revival

International travel partly rebounded in 2021, returning to around one-quarter of pre-pandemic levels (new window) by October of last year, according to the most recent Statistics Canada data available.

The revival quickly reversed, however, as Omicron spread around the globe.

International travel among Canadians far below pre-pandemic level

International travel among Canadians far below pre-pandemic level

Photo: CBC / Statistics Canada

On Dec. 15, federal health minister Jean-Yves Duclos asked Canadians planning to travel abroad (new window) for the holidays to cancel their trips. 

Dougan estimated his agency has lost nearly half its bookings to cancellations since the advisory came out.

The federal government currently requires all international travellers over five years of age to submit proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test, among other requirements (new window), to enter Canada.

Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, said those requirements, coupled with global test shortages, are a major deterrent for travellers.

It is going to be a devastating winter, she said.

Many ineligible for federal support

Dougan said he's grown accustomed to cancellations after two years, but this time around his business isn't able to access federal support.

They're not helping us, he said. That is the bottom line.

Most travel agents — around 80 per cent, Dougan estimated — work on commission.

That pay structure is causing problems because it means travel agents often do work up front only to go unpaid when trips get cancelled, said Judith Coates, president of the Association of Independent Travel Advisors.

It means, again, more work for no pay, she said.

Independent workers 'fallen through the cracks'

Eligible travel agencies could apply for wage and rent support under the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program or the Local Lockdown Program, said Marie-Pier Baril, press secretary for federal Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault, in an email to CBC.

Independent travel agents, she added, may also be eligible for federal programs designed to support individuals, such as the Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, although several travel agents told CBC they did not meet the requirements.

Coates said she started her association because she felt that the needs of travel agents who work as sole proprietors — that is, they work alone rather than with a travel agency — were not being addressed.

In earlier waves of the pandemic, financial supports like the now-cancelled Canada emergency response benefit (new window) were the only programs available to independent agents, Coates said, something that forced them to pay business expenses with money meant to pay their rent and put food on their table.

Paradis said around 40 per cent of travel agents in Canada are considered independent workers. 

There are a lot of independent workers who are really, really struggling, Paradis said. Independent workers have fallen through the cracks of the financial support system.

As for Dougan, he said he's been forced to borrow money to keep Voyages G Travel open.

We were starting to get back into it. Now we're right back off the shelf again, he said. You're on your own.

Ben Andrews (new window) · CBC News

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