TORONTO — The emergence of a new COVID-19 variant has Canada's travel industry bracing for an influx of customer concerns and worried about whether the sector's recent rebound will be put on hold again.
With little known about the new variant and how vaccines will fare against it, the hospitality industry worries some will cancel travel plans, even if public health advice around vacations doesn't change.
Travel agents and associations said Monday they have received a trickle of calls from clients curious about cancellation policies after the World Health Organization designated Omicron, first detected in South Africa, as a "variant of concern" last week and two cases were found in Ottawa on Sunday.
On Monday, Ontario's chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore said two potential cases were also under investigation in Hamilton as well as two more Ottawa. Quebec's Health Minister also confirmed a case in the province.
Ontario travel agent Kristin Hoogendoorn says while her company, KMH Travels, hasn't seen a wave of cancellations yet, a few clients have already asked about refund policies.
"People will hear the word variant and they will see it all over the news and they will freak out," Hoogendoorn predicted.
Richard Smart, the Travel Industry Council of Ontario's chief executive, also hasn't seen a scramble to change vacation plans yet, but acknowledged restrictions Canada placed on those arriving from southern African countries over the weekend could stir up troubles.
"It all comes down to consumer confidence and anything that impacts consumers' confidence to travel is going to have an affect on the travel industry," he said.
"An announcement like the one that we saw over the weekend has already got the waters rippling."
Smart and Hoogendoorn say the uncertainty around Omicron comes at an unfortunate time.
As COVID-19 cases dropped and vaccination levels rose, they noticed people became comfortable globe-trotting again in recent months.
Air Canada told analysts in early November that domestic leisure bookings were recovering and people were visiting family and friends and even heading to "sun destinations" again.
"It was like the stigma had gone and we were starting to slowly come back," Hoogendoorn said.
If the new variant winds up to be more virulent or deadly, Hoogendoorn believes the recovery the industry was seeing prior to Omicron will be further delayed.
"This variant feels like a sucker punch for our little tiny sector that keeps getting battered and if people cancel, I don't know how much longer that we would be able to survive," she said.
Smart, however, was holding onto hope that Omicron might not scuttle the travel industry's recovery just yet because vaccination rates are high.
"We remain concerned but ... cautiously optimistic that we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
"We expect 2022 to be a very good year."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2021.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press