For decades, Travis Stewart knew his stuff inside and out: planning international trips, communicating with clients, booking edge-of-the-seat adventures.
Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 hit and everything changed.
“It has been a very difficult time and it is certainly the most difficult time I have ever experienced in our industry,” said Stewart, co-owner of Charlottetown-based Stewart Travel Group. As the pandemic ground planes, closed borders and lockdown entire cities, some travel agencies in Prince Edward Island have struggled to stay afloat.
“We’re sort of re-creating business,” said Stewart.
Now, as policymakers and health officials prepare to cautiously reopen – fully vaccinated Canadians will be allowed to enter the United States through land and sea border crossings from early November – travel has changed , just like the way travel agencies operate.
Before the pandemic, “we could actually say that on March 11 we’re going to take a group to Punta Cana, and we were pretty sure that was going to happen,” said Stewart.
“On March 11, 2022, is this going to happen? Probably. But again, there is always a little more doubt.”
“A lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear”
Masks, dual vaccinations, tests, mixed vaccines, red zones, vaccine passports and other restrictions – navigating pandemic travel involves many moving and changing parts, said Stewart.
Those of us who are still here are really proud of the fact that we are still here.– Paulette Soloman
“What does it take to leave our island? What do you need when you arrive in Toronto, perhaps as a connection? What might it take when you arrive in Prague if you go to Prague, and what should it take now when you turn around and go home? ” he said.
“Our role as agents is to make sure (…) that the right information is given to our partners on all the different destinations to which they are traveling.”
It’s a similar story to The Travel Store, which has four PEI storefronts.
“Travel counselors have always been the people with the knowledge and expertise about travel destinations, and that continues today,” said owner Paulette Soloman. “But now they’re learning more about vaccines and vaccine requirements and travel regulations to enter countries.”
Soloman bought the business just three months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of March 2020, all of its offices were closed and staff scrambled to find ways to get stuck customers around the world home.
“It was very scary for everyone, for me as a business owner, for all of our staff. We felt a lot of uncertainty, a lot of fear,” she said.
“So 19 months later, I think those of us who are still here are really proud of the fact that we are still here.”
“Better times to come”
Since the start of the pandemic, the daily tasks of travel agents have also changed, Soloman said.
In addition to researching travel trends, advisers also research COVID-19 travel requirements. The hunt for prime tourist destinations now includes keeping an eye out for open borders.
“There are a lot of questions. People are just waiting for that door to open so they can travel again,” she said.
“We are seeing new clients coming to us who are looking for that kind of assurance and information and that kind of support that we can provide.”
Stewart Travel Group is seeing an increase in bookings for escorted travel programs. The group currently has 18 international tours scheduled for 2022. That’s four more than in 2019.
“I think once we start going up, getting our butt back on the airplane seats, I think it will become a lot easier and a lot more calming for everyone,” he said.
“It’s a fascinating, ever-changing industry that, of course, will become even more like this as we move forward,” said Stewart.