“No more work without pay”: travel agents in difficulty after numerous trip cancellations
When the federal government banned flights from South Africa in response to Omicron, Kerwin Dougan took calls at odd hours to help his customers navigate a patchwork of travel bans and testing requirements COVID-19.
Since then, he says, the situation for travel agents like him has only gotten worse.
“Right now we’re just trying to survive,” said Dougan, co-owner of Voyages G Travel in Gatineau, Que.
Dougan and other local travel agents told CBC Ottawa that after two lean years, a combination of vacation travel cancellations, travel rules and lackluster financial support is putting their businesses in jeopardy – just as the industry seemed to be recovering.
International travel partially rebounded in 2021, returning to about a quarter of pre-pandemic levels in October of last year, according to the most recent Statistics Canada data available.
However, the revival quickly reversed, as Omicron spread across the globe.
On December 15, Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos asked Canadians planning to travel abroad for the holidays to cancel their trip.
Dougan estimated his agency had lost nearly half of its bookings due to cancellations since the notice was published.
The federal government currently requires all international travelers over the age of five to show proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test, among other requirements, to enter Canada.
Wendy Paradis, president of the Canadian Association of Travel Agencies, said these requirements, coupled with the global testing shortage, are a major deterrent for travelers.
“It will be a devastating winter,” said Paradis.
Ineligible for support
Dougan said he got used to the cancellations after two years, but this time around his company is unable to access federal support.
“They are not helping us,” he said. “It is essential.”
Most travel agents – around 80%, Dougan estimated – work on commission. This pay structure causes problems because it means travel agents often work up front so they won’t get paid when trips are canceled, said Judith Coates, president of the Association of Independent Travel Advisors.
“This means, again, more work without pay,” Coates said.
“Fell through the cracks of the net”
Eligible travel agencies could apply for wage and rental assistance under the tourism and hospitality stimulus program or the local foreclosure program, said Marie-Pier Baril, press secretary to 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 Canadian Worker Lockdown Benefit, although several travel agents have told CBC they did not meet the requirements.
Coates said she started her association because she felt the needs of travel agents who work as sole proprietors, that is, they work alone rather than with a travel agency. , were not taken into account.
In previous waves of the pandemic, financial supports such as the now-canceled Canada Emergency Response Benefit were the only programs available to independent agents, Coates said. This forced them to pay their business expenses with money meant to “pay their rent and put food on their table,” she said.
Paradis said about 40 percent of travel agents in Canada are considered self-employed.
“There are a lot of freelancers out there who are really, really struggling,” said Paradis. “The self-employed have fallen through the cracks of the financial support system.
As for Dougan, he said he was forced to borrow money to keep Voyages G Travel open.
“We were starting to get back to it. Now we’re back on the shelf again,” he said. “You are alone.”