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Today, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) hosted a discussion via Facebook Live on the state of international travel. Representatives from the travel trade in Canada, the EU, the Caribbean and the U.S. came together to discuss what needs to be done in order to get international travel back up and running.

The panelists included Graeme Buck, director of communications, Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA); Eric Dresin, secretary general, The European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Associations (ECTAA); Zane Kerby, president and CEO of ASTA; Vanessa Ledesma, acting CEO and director general for Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA); and Wendy Paradis, president, Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA).

The discussion opened with Kerby stating that, “Without the safe resumption of international travel, our industry won’t be able to get back to where it was.”

He noted that there are currently 175 million vaccinated citizens in the U.S., and “right now they’re being treated as they’re unvaccinated by countries around the world.”

ACTA’s Paradis pointed out that, “In Canada, like all countries around the world, COVID-19 has had a catastrophic impact, including a mandatory hotel quarantine up until this August. More than 65 percent of full time travel agents are furloughed. Travel restrictions have started to ease, as 60 percent of Canadians are currently vaccinated.” She added that, “Many Canadians should have and can travel being that they’re low risk whether visiting parts of Canada or different parts of the world.”

In addition, she said that, “Fully vaccinated Americans can now visit Canada, and as of yesterday, fully vaccinated international travelers can enter Canada. However, Canadian travelers are still told to avoid all non-essential travel outside of the country. Until international travel restrictions continue to resume, our travel industry cannot recover.”

ABTA’s Buck said that when it comes to the EU, “We are opening up far less quickly than the rest of Europe. We have a traffic light system where counties are categorized by green (less restrictions), amber (some restrictions), and red (lots of restrictions), don’t travel.”

“We need more flexibility from policy makers,” added Buck.

However, for Dresin, “The biggest issues we have had are the refunds of customers,” he said. “We’ve had to refund and very few suppliers could do that; we’ve had a shortage of cash flow in the whole chain and it’s been problematic at the company level, and globally.

“We see a demand for travel and tourism,” he added. “Tourism is doing quite well in Europe, but it’s very domestic. People are taking their car instead of flying by plane and going into neighboring countries. There are a lot of last-minute bookings. Because of this ever-changing pattern of national legislation, it’s very difficult for people to plan their holidays.”

He also added that the industry has a “need for a trained and experienced workforce in the coming months.”

CHTA’s Ledesma said that for the Caribbean, when it comes to tourism, “nine out of the 10 top countries most dependent on tourism for employment are in the Caribbean.” Adding that, however, “Caribbean deaths and hospitalizations are the lowest in the world.”

How Should Governments Help?

international travelOnce the panelists shared the current status of their countries and the struggles they’re facing as international travel tries to pick back up, they discussed how the governments can better support the travel industry financially being that they’ve all been badly disturbed over the last 18 months.

“It needs to provide direct grant-like relief,” said Kerby. “If they’re discouraging travel, or shutting down travel like they did with the cruise industry, that decision should trigger grant relief to our members. They also need to follow their own science. They’ve been telling us the vaccination makes life better and will allow you to return to things you love to do, including travel.” However, he noted that, “Not allowing travelers in is too blunt of a statement. It has to be 2-tier, if you’re unvaccinated here are the rules for travel, if you’re not vaccinated, here are the rules for travel, because that’s the reason people went out and got vaccinated.”

Dresin added, “We are entering a new period in this pandemic. I don’t know if we’re getting out of it, but for sure we can’t use the tools we’ve been using until now. We need the industry to get into the condition to get people back into travel. Domestic tourism was not that bad, but what we need is to restart international travel. Clearly using the vaccine as one of the key elements there is crucial.”

“When it comes to travel industries, we are somewhat shuttered until these restrictions are eased,” said Paradis. “Between now and until when that happens, we are in critical need of financial aid. In Canada, most of these aids end in October. But it doesn’t make sense to reduce any aid programs for the hardest hit sectors like travel agencies. Our industry is so in debt, we cannot take on more debt. We are looking for grants, and the continuation of programs like the wage subsidy and rent subsidy. Until we can move to recovery, it is vital for the survival of these programs, not to just continue them, but for them to be enhanced.”

“In the UK, the domestic economy has been opening up ahead of international travel,” said Buck. “But business sectors have been treated the same. For example if you’re a hair dresser you’ve been open for some months and have not been given restrictions, but yet they’ve been able to access similar levels of support as the travel sector, which has a lot of restrictions and are still struggling. The kind of support we need is similar to Canada.” Adding that, “another way [to help] is to look at the rules and regulations and help open it [international travel] up so it can support itself.”

What Can We Do to Contribute to the Restart of Travel?

“We have to lean on our governments,” said Kerby. “We have to contact our legislators, and the good news is we have the numbers to do it. We have to cozy up to the customer…we have to make sure we are not diagnosing the risk threat that they’re exposed to when they travel and point them to the CDC, and help them understand the risks and not try to sell to their risk tolerance.”

Dresin added that the what needs to be done is for the agencies and the governments to join efforts. Adding that, “On the rapid testing, why do governments have reluctance to that?’ Because they consider it’s not reliable enough—it’s a scientific approach. We need to give an incentive to people who are getting vaccinated. Vaccination is the easiest and most reliable tool we have.”

Paradis agreed saying that, “One of our asks is to follow the science; follow the data when it comes to vaccine recognition to make sure there is consistency. As an industry, we need to keep pushing so this becomes a bigger issue for governments to want to solve. In order to make vaccinations more efficient, in Canada they mixed vaccines. They keep stating that the science is there, but Canadians aren’t necessarily welcomed around the world with mixed vaccines. So as a world, we need to get our act together and follow the science through one group, which could be the WHO. Having some standard protocol based on science and data that’s reasonable is a step forward.”

“The science still remains that PCR testing remains the gold standard,” said Ledesma. She adds that vaccinations aren’t the only thing that needs to be looked at, but also how countries and destinations are assigned threat levels, as it’s not always a ‘one level fits all’ situation. “In regard to data, it should be looked at when destinations are assigned a threat level. Having an in-depth look at what’s really going on in the destination, and the successes that have been had is vital,” she said.

Buck added, “You need to back this with a strong media effort as well so people understand the facts and try to build consumer confidence. The more consistency you have across borders, the easier it is to understand, the less off putting it would be for people to travel.”

What was Demand like for Travel Advisors During the Summer with Conflicting Headlines & Travel Policies?

ASTA noted that 40 percent of travelers who had never used a travel professional have indicated they used a travel professional because the system was too complex to figure out on their own.

“It is so complex in Europe,” said Dresin, “that even for the professional it was challenging to stay informed. So it’s very challenging for the consumers.

“Last-minute bookings were made directly by the customers. There is a demand, but sadly we don’t expect a big change in the coming months.”

Buck added that “fewer people are traveling, so fewer people are using travel agents. People are considerably more likely to use an agent when they’re traveling again, but the question for this summer is that there’s been a lot less travel. Travel agents have not been able to get the business that they need.”

“What happened in Canada,” said Paradis, “Canadians were going to travel within Canada and visit friends and family they hadn’t seen in over a year and a half. There’s also a tremendous pent up demand for travel. We have seen an uptick in future travel. We also know that more than 30 percent of Canadians are likely to use the valuable resources of a travel agent. In Canada, our Canadians are looking into 2022—they want to know exactly what the travel protocols are going to be at the airport, in the airplane, what are the Cobid numbers at the destination…they want to know right down to the hotel, the resort, or the cruise. A travel agent is seen as more valuable than ever. And we’re also seeing that the number of questions and contacts has gone up quite dramatically. Maybe a travel advisor spoke to their client two to three times before they traveled, we’re hearing from agents they’re speaking to their clients 10-15 times and they’re not even traveling until February.”

Kerby added that what’s needed is for the industry to ask governments to treat vaccinated travelers and unvaccinated travelers differently.

“For Canadian travelers mixing vaccine doses has been an extreme issue,” said Paradis. “In New York, if you have the AstraZeneca vaccine you couldn’t attend the Bruce Springsteen Broadway show. We need to discuss the mixed vaccines and the ability for Canadians to travel in 2022.” Adding that, “The Delta variant has become front and center for most governments.”

She added that there are “a lot of Canadians that have booked travel for 2022 and will they not be able to enter those countries?”

Ledesma said that the CHTA is currently evaluating a vaccine passport and what they’ll be accepting.

Is it Going to Take Years to Get Back to Traveling Again?

international travel“I don’t have a crystal ball but I would say, I hope not,” said Kerby. “I hope we can provide the proper political pressure along with media pressure. There are 175 million vaccinated Americans…they need to know that they know they’re not going to get stuck there [when traveling]. Once regulations are on the books, they’re very hard to take off. So unless we join forces and use our collective voice that vaccinations matter, and have a risk system in place for those vaccinated and those who are not…that’s the path forward.

“COVID is going to be with us for many years to come; it seems that some governments are trying to take a zero risk perspective…we need to manage the risk, and recognize that people are going to get COVID. It’s important for governments to recognize that, and now we need to start traveling. Traveling is an integral part for a quality life for millions of people around the world. It’s important for governments to manage risk rather than having us be shuttered for the next five years so we’re at a zero chance of catching this virus,” added Kerby.

“Imagine 18 months ago we closed the world completely, there was nothing happening in the world; we were locked at home,” said Dresin. “Today, 18 months later, we have solutions and all together we are trying to find the way out. It may be quicker than we can expect. I’m taking a more positive approach, but agree with what has been said.”

Ledesma said it’s all about three main principals—“adaptability: this thing is going to be with us forever; flexibility, and collaboration.” Adding that, “We need to continue to highlight the value of the industry.”

Buck added that yes, governments can give a better heads up to tourism organizations when changing and updating their protocols and regulations. “In the UK international travel was illegal. We are quite away from that now but not much…people are going to want to be traveling. People are going to learn to live with COVID in all aspects of society. But what we need now are for things to be given a kick start from this rather cautious approach.”

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