Tourism-related businesses across Quebec are gearing up for a busy summer after the federal government disclosed plans to scrap COVID-19 testing requirements for visitors as infection numbers decline.
As of April 1, Canada will no longer require fully vaccinated travellers to show a negative COVID-19 test when they arrive by air, land or water, federal health minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Thursday. Incoming travellers will still be required to enter their information in the ArriveCan app.
“It’s a big relief,” Yves Lalumière, president of Tourism Montreal, said in an interview. “We were the most vaccinated jurisdiction, but also the most restrictive, and that hurt us as a destination. The simpler things are for travellers, the better it is.”
Ottawa’s announcement opens the door to a substantial increase in visitor numbers for 2022. It also leaves hundreds of Quebec hotels, cruise companies and other hospitality businesses scrambling to fill an estimated 40,000 summer jobs over the coming weeks — all in the midst of a chronic labour shortage.
“This is the signal we’ve been waiting for,” said Cybèle Robichaud, head of the Montreal Science Centre, which wants to fill dozens of positions over the coming weeks. “It gives us the green light to hire. Hopefully the crowds will return.”
Located in the Old Port, the science centre typically drew about 400,000 visitors a year before the pandemic. Some 6 million people would flock to the Old Port in a normal year, making the area Quebec’s No. 1 tourist destination.
Montreal can probably aspire to draw as many as 6.5 million out-of-town visitors this year, compared with the record 11 million who came in 2019, Lalumière said. Hotel occupancy could potentially hit 70 per cent between June and the end of September, double last year’s figure, he said.
“People are eager to travel and reconnect with their loved ones,” David Rheault, vice-president of government and community relations at Air Canada, said in a statement. Ending pre-departure testing “will provide travellers with more certainty, allowing them to plan their next trip with more confidence and without the worry of incurring additional costs.”
Canada’s biggest carrier is one of several airlines that are expanding their network in anticipation of rising demand. Air Canada is bringing back 27 destinations to and from Trudeau International Airport, while rivals such as Air Transat and Air France are also adding capacity.
Ottawa’s decision will make life simpler for business travellers, according to Michel Leblanc, head of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal. Business visitors often pay higher prices than budget-conscious vacationers, making them a key target for tourist boards.
Some 500 business meetings and tourist events are currently scheduled to take place here between May and October, according to Lalumière.
Besides Formula One’s Canadian Grand Prix in June, major events include the National Hockey League entry draft later that month, the Lions Club international convention, the AIDS 2022 conference and the North American Irish Dance Championships in early July.
“This is going to be our first year of recovery,” Lalumière said. “Our booking momentum is excellent.”
Bertil Fabre, general manager of Le Centre Sheraton in downtown Montreal, paints a similar picture.
“Obviously we’re very happy,” he said. “This opens up the entire U.S. northeast clientele — what we call the ‘rubber tire market,’ people who take their car to go on vacation.”
Despite the recent surge in gas prices, daily bookings at the Sheraton have more than tripled in the past week, and occupancy rates could rise to 90 per cent by July from about 35 per cent this month, according to Fabre. Rooms at the hotel are already sold out for the Grand Prix weekend, he added.
“It looks like we’re on the road back to profitability,” said Fabre, who needs to recruit about 150 staffers for the summer. “Thankfully, we have time to prepare.”
Fabre isn’t alone in looking to hire. Festivals and tourist attractions across the province need to fill about 10,000 summer positions. That’s leading Events and Attractions Quebec, a provincial association that represents about 250 festivals and 200 tourist attractions, to hold a career fair March 25 and 26, both online and in person. Candidates can apply at evenementsattractionsemplois.com.
However positive, Ottawa’s move still comes too late to help businesses that rely on European and Asian tour operators, most of whom will bypass Canada in 2022 because the trips are booked well in advance.
Lifting the testing requirement “is good news, but it doesn’t change the fact we’re going to have to live without international groups this year,” said Lucie Charland, vice-president of development at Quebec City’s Croisières AML, which organizes dinner cruises in Montreal and whale-watching tours near Tadoussac. “We just have to hope that our proximity markets come through for us.”
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