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Greater Victoria residents eager to travel despite new virus threat

"We’ve been slammed … pent-up demand is an understatement."
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Travel agents say that after nearly two years of intermittent travel closures and restrictions, there is a pent-up demand to go somewhere warm, or see family. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, file

Despite the emergence of a new ­variant of the COVID-19 virus and ­warnings from public health officials to be cautious about making travel plans, Greater Victorians are chomping at the bit to escape the city — and the country — for sunspot holidays and Christmas reunions, say travel agents.

“We’ve been slammed … pent-up demand is an understatement,” said Cathy Scott, who operates Departures Travel offices in Victoria and Sidney and boutique tour agency Niche Travel.

She said news of the Omicron virus’s appearance in Canada this week has caused “initial concerns, but very few cancellations.”

After nearly two years of ­intermittent travel closures and r­estrictions — and with many people fully vaccinated — Shan Brindle of ­Marlin Travel on Oak Bay Avenue said: “It’s like a tap’s been turned on.

“People want to go someplace warm, they want to see family that they haven’t seen in a long time,” she said. “What we’re saying is if you want to get out of Dodge, you can, but with a lot of caution.”

Scott said many clients are booking holidays to Europe to see family members, and Mexico and the Caribbean are red-hot as winter approaches and Islanders dry out from a series of heavy rainstorms.

Hawaii is also popular, though Scott said it’s expensive because mainland Americans have scooped up a lot of the lower- or mid-priced hotels.

“A lot of clients had trips cancelled during the pandemic, and many of the trips they wanted are sold out out, so they’re booking into 2023,” said Scott.

Service Canada has issued 591,000 passports in the seven months from April to October. The federal agency’s passport office at the Bay Centre has lineups before opening each morning, indicating the demand for international travel is high. Turnaround times are currently four to 14 business days, depending on whether the application is in-person or by mail.

But travel agents are warning people to be cautious about travel plans with the Omicron variant’s arrival.

The virus first identified in early November in South Africa is being detected almost daily in Canada, with Ontario confirming five cases, Alberta two and and British Columbia one in the Fraser Health Authority. The World Health Organization said 23 countries have reported cases of the variant, but how much more transmissible the highly mutated virus is, and how much more severe illness it causes remains unclear.

Brindle said she anticipates some travellers might cancel their plans if the virus spreads.

“Some might be afraid and some won’t want to deal with all the hassles of possible quarantines or testing,” she said. “It’s a fluid situation.”

As health officials from around the world warned about Omicron, Ottawa announced earlier this week that all air passengers entering Canada, except those from the United States, need to be tested upon arrival and isolate until they get their results. The rule also applies to those who are fully vaccinated against the virus.

Scott said travel insurance is becoming essential, with policies covering potential COVID-related costs such as quarantines and testing.

The Fairmont Empress Hotel, meanwhile, expects an influx of guests from the Lower Mainland, Alberta and Seattle to fill its 464 rooms over the Christmas and New Year’s period, as families gather closer to home.

Most of the hotel’s Christmas lunches, teas and dinners are nearly sold out and tickets are on sale for its New Year celebrations.

“We are seeing people eager to connect with family and friends … others with stay-cation plans,” said Brigitte Diem-Guy, director of marketing for the Fairmont Empress. “We are monitoring the Omicron situation carefully and maintaining all of our COVID safety plans, which are the most stringent in the industry.”

dkloster@timescolonist.com