For Canada’s airlines and airports, the months-long COVID-19 pandemic has far surpassed 9/11 in its impact on business and employment, and following the lead of European and Asian countries to streamline traveller testing is a key to recovery, tourism and airline executives say.
In a tourism recovery forum organized by the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade Monday, Vancouver International Airport CEO Tamara Vrooman said a pilot program for rapid testing of arriving international passengers at Calgary Airport was begun two weeks ago, and a program to test arriving passengers is about to be done in Toronto. Testing people days before they fly, screening as they board and testing as they arrive at a destination is the path to carefully winding down the quarantine rules that have put the international travel business on life support, Vrooman and other travel executive said.
The picture is currently grim for Air Canada, senior vice president Ferio Pugliese told the forum, hosted on the Zoom video conferencing platform from Vancouver. Demand is down 92 per cent, 20,000 employees are laid off and 200 aircraft are parked waiting for some easing of travel restrictions as has been seen in Europe and Asia, which have safe country agreements and are deploying rapid testing.
“I do think there will be some movement with the federal government on rapid testing,” Pugliese said. “It’s amazing in a short period of time how much testing has advanced.”
Darryl Brooker, president of Mission Hill winery in West Kelowna, said rapid testing is vital to domestic tourism as well. It not only gives travellers an assurance of their safety, it helps businesses keep their workforce making products and staffing destination facilities when visitors do arrive.
Rebuilding customer confidence that tours and other activities are safe is “really about showing, not telling,” Brooker said. “You can only put up so many signs.”
Royce Chwin, CEO of Tourism Vancouver, said the city is the “anchor tenant” for the rebuilding of tourism business across B.C. Like other urban centres, it has taken a “triple hit” of pandemic effects on residents, office workers and travellers, with an estimated loss of $9.8 billion in visitor spending, $2.6 billion in taxes paid to government and 72,000 jobs.
Vrooman noted that Canada is the only G7 country that has not provided any assistance to its airports and airlines in the pandemic, calling the ability to prove virus-negative status “essential” to a recovery.
Chwin said another step in tourism and travel recovery is to use testing to find ways to get out from under the 50-person cap on public events that has ground the convention business to a halt. He said restoring public confidence that activities are safe is not just science but art, answering the question: “How do you move from fear of the virus to respect for the virus?”
Board of Trade CEO Bridgitte Anderson, moderator of the forum, said a recent survey of group members found that 26 per cent of them don’t expect their business to survive another 12 months in the current conditions. With the losses that have already taken place, Chwin said confidence is needed because “we’re going to have to attract entrepreneurs to come back into the industry and rebuild it.”