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Federal government loosening international COVID-19 travel restrictions

“There is no other destination in Canada that is probably as dependent on tourism as Banff and Lake Louise. … The ability to welcome back international visitors is incredibly exciting, we’re ready to go and welcome the world.”

BANFF – The countdown is on for international travellers to return to the Bow Valley.

The federal government announced Thursday (March 17) that fully vaccinated travellers will no longer have to show a negative pre-departure COVID-19 test as of April 1.

“We promised to follow the science and open up the borders and that’s what we’re doing today and we expect that will help tourism businesses from coast to coast to coast,” said Randy Boissonnault, the MP for Edmonton Centre and the associate minister of tourism.

The decision comes after advocacy work by travel and tourism organizations, focusing on how the continued requirement wasn’t based on science and was significantly impacting tourism-related businesses.

While several other countries had made the move in recent weeks or months, Canada had continued to hold on to its strict COVID-19 protocols.

The decision to do-away with the pre-departure tests was widely welcomed by the tourism community including Banff, which heavily relies on the industry.

Darren Reeder, the executive director of Banff Lake Louise Hospitality Association and the board advisor for the Tourism Industry Association of Alberta, called the move “incredibly positive.”

He highlighted the significant impact the pandemic has had on Banff and Lake Louise, which saw nearly 75 to 80 per cent of its workforce become unemployed in the first wave.

“There is no other destination in Canada that is probably as dependent on tourism as Banff and Lake Louise. … The ability to welcome back international visitors is incredibly exciting, we’re ready to go and welcome the world,” he said.

Banff has started to see a slight upswing in visitation in recent weeks, but it’s significantly less than the pre-COVID numbers that regularly saw the region packed most months of the year.

“The big challenge for us moving forward will be labour and making sure we have the staff to host the world once again,” said Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno.

With the Banff Avenue pedestrian zone returning and a section of the Bow Valley Parkway closed to vehicles for part of the summer, she said the hope is visitation will increase and benefit employers and workers.

But while it will take time for the workforce to return, DiManno said housing and affordability will remain “one of our biggest challenges” and that the Town is continuing to work with the province and federal government to address the concerns.

Reeder said some projections show it could take up to 10 years for the region to rebuild its workforce and two to three years to return to the pre-pandemic international visitor numbers.

He said it’s important for businesses to make revenue this summer – especially after losing the last two summers – and for subsidies such as the Tourism and Hospitality Recovery Program to continue a bit longer.

The federal government invested about $15 billion in Budget 2021 and a further $12 billion to assist with hard hit industries such as tourism. He said the supports aren’t meant to be permanent, but will continue until at least May.

He highlighted the tourism ministry has been working with the immigration and labour ministries on further assisting the tourism sector.

“We are figuring out how people can work in the tourism sector for 12 months of the year, how they will be able to afford housing when they come here and the other piece is we’re going to do with the provinces and our partners in tourism is really position the tourism sector and workers in the tourism sector as a career,” Boissonnault said. “It shouldn’t just be something you think of doing in university or on your gap year or from Australia or New Zealand or overseas, coming to Canada and making a career in tourism is something that we want to position for.”

The announcement comes as COVID-19 case counts have been on a downward slide since the peak of the Omicron variant. However, with testing largely falling by the wayside, case counts are no longer the best metric to use for community transmission.

While the pre-arrival testing will soon be lifted, the remaining pandemic travel rules will continue to be held in place.

Incoming travellers may still have random and mandatory PCR testing when arriving, with the intent to monitor for potentially new variants. Travellers who are not vaccinated – mainly those driving across the border – will continue to need to isolate, be tested when arriving and test again after eight days.

Travellers flying on a federally-regulated air, rail and maritime transit will still need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The April 1 date is particularly key for tourism and international travellers.

As borders open up and people are freer to travel, international trips often take significantly more time to put together and regularly see visitors stay for longer.

“This is the conversation I’ve been having with (ministers) about making sure we save the end of the spring season, the summer season, the fall season,” Boissonnault said. “We want the big conferences back, we want the business travellers back, but we want the travelling public to come to this beautiful space in the mountain parks. … People have missed this and we learned in COVID how important big open spaces are and the ability to really connect with nature.”

Reeder emphasized the timeline allows international visitors to book trips to Canada.

Though it wasn’t restricted for those visitors who were fully vaccinated, the uncertainty of testing costs and potential delays could lead people to choose other destinations.

“It’s hugely important because the booking window is open now. People are making those decisions on where they’re going for summer right now," Reeder said. "They are making and have been making choices to go elsewhere because there’s been too much unpredictability on what costs and delays maybe if they choose to go to Canada. This really allows us to assertively position our brand and our calls to action to come to Canada right now.”