Tour operators want Ottawa to consider switching requirement to rapid tests for returning Canadian travellers
With the U.S. border reopening for non-essential travel from Canada early next month, tour operators are trying to find a way to navigate the remaining requirement for a PCR test before returning home. An industry group is calling on the federal government to consider allowing rapid tests as an alternative.
It’s something Teresa Marshall, of Surrey-based Pitmar Tours, thinks could help.
For years, the company she co-owns has helped people kick off the Christmas season in Washington State, with visits to the Bavarian-style village of Leavenworth.
“We do a horse-drawn sleigh ride and the lighting festival,” she said. “Around five o’clock, all the lights in Leavenworth light up all at once.”
Marshall said most of the travellers who come on the tour are seniors, and many have been regulars.
“To see their faces light up, it just warms you,” she said.
While the tour company had to skip its 2020 visit due to the pandemic, it began touring again this June, and is hoping to bring back the holiday season tradition with a visit across the border in December.
“Everyone on the bus will be fully vaccinated,” Marshall said. “If not twice, three times.”
She added the company also has a mask policy, and incorporates distancing and regular disinfection.
However, even with the border reopening to non-essential travel in early November, there is still uncertainty. Marshall is trying to figure out how she can get everyone on their tour bus a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) COVID-19 test during their visit.
A negative result is required within 72 hours of returning to Canada. People visiting the states for less than three days can conduct their pre-entry test in Canada before they leave the country. For the four-day trip Pitmar Tours has planned, the test will have to be done in the states.
“If it was a three-day tour, 72 hours, we could have had testing before we go and come back, which makes absolutely no sense,” she said. “Within 72 hours, that’s three days where you could still get (the virus), versus a rapid test.”
Brett Walker, chair of the Canadian Association of Tour Operators, said other countries have adopted the rapid or antigen test, which is “much more accessible” and “far less prohibitive.”
“We’re asking the government to at least think about, or offer that as an option,” he said. “Give Canadians – returning Canadians – the option of the antigen test, with a PCR test possibly here in Canada where they could quarantine at home.”
Walker said CATO would also like to see Canada change its current stance on not recommending non-essential travel, and continue wage and rent supports.
“We need to somehow bridge the gap between the now and when there will be any meaningful return to travel, which will probably be first, second quarter of next year,” he said.
When Pitmar Tours started travelling again in the summer, they also began requiring full vaccination, which Marshall says led to online and verbal attacks.
“I got horrible horrible threats,” she said. “They phoned and they would tell me I was a Nazi and I was out of my mind and they were going to sue me.”
The offensive backlash followed more than a year of not being able to travel, which also saw Pitmar refund over $60,000 for a planned trip to Palm Springs in spring 2020. Marshall said the critics even left negative online reviews for their company on Google, despite not being among their customers. She was able to contact the internet company to get the reviews removed.
Now, she’s just hoping to make the Leavenworth trip happen. Marshall has until mid-November to let the pre-booked hotels know whether the December trip will go ahead.
“It’s half full now, and everyone else is just waiting to see what the border restrictions are going to be,” she said. “It would mean a lot to get this trip going.”
Financially, she says it would help tide them over until the spring.
Christmas is also Marshall’s favourite time of year, and the trip gives her a chance to reconnect with a travel group she considers “part of the Pitmar family.”
“I sure hope we can do it this year for people,” she said. “They need a break.”