SIM Report: Canada maintains barriers to international travel despite accelerating vaccination efforts

SIM Report: North America, Issue 13

On 18 June, Canadian officials announced that a ban on non-essential travel across the country’s land border with the US would be extended by one month until 21 July. The announcement marked the continuation of a policy in place since March 2020, when the escalating coronavirus pandemic prompted the closure of the border for all-but-essential travel. The ban’s extension came on top of strict government restrictions on international travel, including bans on most foreign visitors. Several days later, however, Canadian authorities announced that travel restrictions on fully-vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents would slowly begin to be lifted. Under the new rules, fully-immunised Canadians and permanent residents will no longer have to quarantine upon their return to Canada from abroad as of 5 July, although they must obtain negative COVID-19 test results prior to and on their arrival in Canada.

While the latter policy facilities international arrivals, Canada’s travel and tourism sector was largely left disappointed by the announcements. In recent weeks, industry groups have stepped up calls for Ottawa to lift international travel restrictions, particularly amid Canada’s rapid vaccination rates and an attendant decline in COVID-19 cases. On 4 June, for example, the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC) and Airlines for America (A4A), a US aviation industry association, jointly wrote to Canadian ministers to call for the lifting of travel restrictions between the countries. While government officials have indicated restrictions may soon be lifted, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying on 22 June that he hoped further announcements would be made in the coming weeks, re-opening is set to be closely linked to vaccination rates and epidemiological trends. Public safety minister Bill Blair, for example, said on 20 June that the ‘finish line’ for re-opening would be when approximately 75 per cent of Canadians are fully vaccinated. Despite first doses reaching around 70 per cent of the population as of early July due to an acceleration of recent vaccination efforts, only 30 per cent of the population had been fully immunised against coronavirus.

Despite travel industry objections, the Trudeau government’s actions are largely supported by the public. According to an online survey conducted by market research company Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies between 18-20 June, 69 per cent of respondents said that restrictions should remain in place while people get vaccinated against COVID-19. In April, a survey from fellow market research company Ipsos found that around eight in ten Canadians believe travellers entering Canada should carry proof of vaccination. Public support for coronavirus-related restrictions is likely viewed as crucial within the federal government, particularly amid growing speculation over a possible general election in September. Trudeau’s administration is likely hoping to benefit from the incumbency effect seen in elections overseas, such as in New Zealand, where governing parties have been rewarded by voters for their perceived success in handling the pandemic.

Canadian authorities are likely to carry out the re-opening to international travel cautiously once vaccination rates approach government targets. Initial steps are likely to include re-opening the US land border, provided case numbers remain low there, and facilitating travel to and from countries with low case numbers, such as Australia and New Zealand. While these steps are likely in the coming months, a full re-opening to international travel is likely to depend on global caseloads falling significantly and the emergence of international consensus regarding testing and quarantine requirements for fully-vaccinated travellers. Organisations in Canada’s travel and tourism sector should carefully monitor government statements and epidemiological trends, and assess how moves towards the re-opening of international travel impact operations and planning.

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