Canada’s new normal: ‘Stay home’ for the holidays. International travel and its difficulties in pandemic times
Since March and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian government has closed its borders to all non-essential foreign travel. A country which receives almost a third of a million immigrants annually, and in which 21.9% of the population has been born outside of the nation, Canada has traditionally experienced a high rate of international travel and geographic mobility. With everyone from families coming and going, visiting their home countries; to the regular influx of international students, temporary foreign workers, tourists, and ‘snowbirds’ going south and back, Canada’s borders have been a global revolving door for many.
The tourism industry has been among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Before the pandemic shattered this industry, Canada had received a record 22.1 million international tourists in 2019. In a country where the total population is around 37.8 million, tourism represents a considerable proportion of people on the move. 2019 marked the sixth consecutive year of increased tourist arrivals to the country.
Mobility was high in both directions: last year, travel overseas by Canadians reached a new high when Canadian residents made a record-breaking 12.3 million trips overseas (not including travel to the United States). The December holidays have traditionally been a time of high international mobility. In December 2019, Canadian residents returned from 4.8 million trips abroad. In the same period, travel to all overseas countries by Canadian residents rose 1.8% to 1.1 million trips – the highest record for the month of December. This December, however, paints a very different picture.
The pandemic has made travelling difficult on many fronts. Four days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, on 14 March Global Affairs Canada called upon Canadians abroad to come back home while they had the chance, before the government closed its borders on 16 March. A few days later, on 20 March, even the US-Canada border, which was crossed by 15 million American tourists last year, representing roughly 68% of all tourism to Canada, was also closed.
There were many stories of individuals who, for essential or discretionary reasons, were overseas when the pandemic hit, and found themselves unable to come back to Canada, as international borders closed, flights were cancelled, countries went into lockdown and curfews were implemented. Diplomatic negotiations to repatriate nationals became very complex. For example, 400 Canadians and permanent residents were repatriated after being locked in Wuhan earlier in February. More than 5,000 Canadians were rescued from cruise ships unable to dock, and thousands more were brought home from faraway places like India, Peru and Morocco. Overall, Global Affairs Canada repatriated 62,500 Canadians from 109 countries as of July (charting flights at the expense of taxpayers’ money), before closing this herculean operation in August.
Families with complex immigration statuses were also separated. Some bi-national marriages, common-law partnerships, or dependents did not qualify for entry to Canada, which earlier this year allowed entrance to Canadian citizens only. Travelling to Canada now needs to follow a special procedure to reunite family members, which establishes who is eligible to enter Canada – immediate family of citizens, including spouses, children, and parents. Early in the pandemic, Justin Trudeau’s government announced federal aid in loans to repatriate Canadians who ended up stranded abroad, and who could not finance an extended stay abroad. Now several months later, very few citizens have repaid such loans – another financial burden for the already high COVID-related government expenses.
A sense of the ‘new normal’ settled in by summer, and domestic travel seemed to resume somewhat, after the first peak of the pandemic. Many people were stuck close to home in Canada, as even inter-provincial travel was discouraged, and in some cases restricted. Local camping, road trips, and RVs were staples for Canadians this past summer. Those who ventured internationally did so under the rules of the new normal: masks, face shields, COVID-19 tests, uncertainty about flights, changing rules on international travel, looming lockdowns, and worsening pandemic conditions.
As the year now drags to an end, for some people ‘COVID fatigue’ has struck. Fed up with restrictions and a stagnant economy, many dream of a holiday season in which families can travel again – for fun, or simply to be together. Yet, the numbers of COVID cases are growing in Canada and are twice as high than during the first peak of the pandemic earlier in May. And still, people seem to be eager to travel for many reasons. The travel industry is banking on this motivation to sell tickets for ‘flights that will never take off’. Travelling is still happening, not only among Canadians who have roots and families abroad, but also the ‘snowbirds’ who are determined to spend the winter in warmer climates south of the border, despite the risks. Insurance companies are relying on travellers’ need (or wish) to travel by selling COVID coverage, a move that for some is irresponsible – as travel restrictions remain in place. For some others, this is just pragmatic. Facing the upcoming end-of-the-year holiday travel fever, the Canadian government has recently declared it will not repatriate any more people, who, knowing the dangers of ending up stranded, still decide to travel abroad.
People continue to move, as movement is part of the human condition. But do we really need to travel now? It’s complicated. Do we feel like we should be travelling? We probably do, as social media, the travel industry, and a culture of FOMO and YOLO have encouraged people to travel frequently. Canada has not prohibited mobility as other countries have, and there certainly are loopholes remaining. Still, the country relies on people’s will to do the right thing, for the greater good. Many times, the decision to travel remains largely up to travellers, who should consider carefully the risks, rules and realities of 2020. We will be keeping these challenges in mind as we are tempted by cheap plane tickets for the travels we still dream of.
Dr Alfaro is an instructor of Sociology in Columbia College, in Vancouver, British Columbia. An immigrant herself, she has not travelled to her native country in four years. She still has the tickets from a flight that was cancelled last April. Contact her at: