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Snowbirds get their wings clipped

When Canadian pop legend Anne Murray released her chart-topping single Snowbird in 1970, she could not have imagined the trouble that sun-seeking travellers would endure some 50 years later.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian snowbirds had their wings clipped in 2020. And with 2021 just around the corner, it looks like thousands of wary Canadian travellers will be staying put in this winter as well.

For the time being, dreams of escaping to a sunny destination have been put on ice.

“We usually go south for the winter … but not this year,” said Jeremy Welter, a farmer and snowbird from Kerrobert, Sask.

“Almost every country, for the most part, has some type of COVID restrictions in place as far as international travel is concerned.”

For the past eight years, Welter and his wife Angelica have spent a portion of each winter in Colombia, where Angelica’s family lives.

Normally, they fly to Bogota and travel from there to spend time with friends and family.

This year, however, their travel plans have been put on hold.

The couple plans to stay close to home and avoid the issues that can arise when travelling to a foreign country.

“I think our biggest concern is just getting down there,” Welter said.

“Travelling at any point in time is always a bit of a stressful situation and to choose to do it in the middle of a pandemic, obviously, just adds to the stress of travelling.”

“Plus, there’s the concern that you might plan to be down there for six weeks or two months or whatever, but at this point… there’s really no guarantee that there’s going to be any flights to get you back.”

“Safety is obviously a concern but the inability to plan is also a factor.”

Welter’s concerns aren’t uncommon. Many of his farm neighbours and acquaintances have also scrapped their winter travel plans and plan to stay put in frosty Saskatchewan this year.

“Honestly, I’ve lost track of the number of people that I know who have just decided to stay home,” Welter said. “It seems to be a fairly common thing.”

The Canadian Snowbird Association agrees.

The organization, which represents about 110,000 Canadians who travel to the United States each year, estimates that nearly three out of every four seasonal travellers from Canada who typically spent time in American sunbelt will stay at home this winter.

“We have some members… who have made plans to travel down south this winter and some who are already down there,” said Evan Rachkovsky, the CSA’s director of research and communications.

“But I would say the majority of our membership has decided to stay home this season.”

“We’re looking at approximately 70 percent of our membership that has already decided to stay home.”

That number could rise if COVID-19 infection numbers spike during the pandemic’s second wave.

Rachkovsky said conditions affecting international travel have been chaotic since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic last March.

Soon after the WHO announcement, the government of Canada issued a travel advisory encouraging all Canadians abroad to come home.

During that time, the CSA was busy advising its members about quarantine requirements, personal safety measures and international border restrictions.

At the time, the number of Canadians living or vacationing in the U.S. was estimated in the hundreds of thousands.

In late March, Canada and the U.S. announced all land border crossings between the two countries would be closed to non-essential travel.

In November, that international border closure was extended to Dec. 21, but it is widely expected that the restrictions will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

“The prime minister has indicated that the closure will likely be extended well into 2021 and that’s what we expect as well,” said Rachkovsky.

“The land border right now is closed or is restricted to all non-essential travel, but … the United States government didn’t apply those restrictions to air travel and because of that, some Canadian are still choosing to travel to the United States by air.”

Those who plan to fly south should pay close attention to their travel insurance policies, Rachkovsky said.

Many health insurance companies that offer coverage to foreign travellers have placed caps on COVID-19 emergency coverage.

Numerous policies that offer millions of dollars in total emergency health coverage have set a C$200,000 limit on coverage for COVID-19 treatments abroad.

“Our perspective is that that amount is not sufficient, so if people are going to travel… they should be purchasing a policy that goes above and beyond that $200,000 cap,” he said.

“If you do end up contracting the virus in the United States, that $200,000 is not going to go very far.”

Despite the obvious risks, some Canadian sun seekers are undeterred.

Welter said some snowbirds he knows will still be travelling to their winter homes in Arizona, Florida and California this year, but instead of driving down as they normally do, they’ll be flying.

He’s also heard that some Canadian travellers are booking flights to U.S. destinations in northern states such as Montana, North Dakota or Minnesota and are having their vehicles or RVs transported over the border by commercial trucking companies.

“They’ve decided that they’re going to go to Arizona or Phoenix or wherever they have a place and come hell or high water, they’re going to drive down, even if it means driving down from Minot.”

Regardless of how they get to their destinations, the number of travellers will be down sharply this winter, Rachkovsky said.

It will have a huge economic impact on the U.S. economy.

According to the CSA, Canadian travellers spend nearly $1 billion annually in Arizona alone and a whopping $6.5 billion dollars in Florida.

“It’s going to have a significant economic impact on the sunbelt states,” Rachkovsky said.

From Welter’s perspective, the inability to travel will also have a negative impact on the health of Canadians, particularly Canadian farmers.

“I think a lot of people are just beginning to think about this, but the mental health benefits of having that ability to get away are pretty significant,” he said.

“People who commute to work or have jobs outside the home are able to get away from the workplace. They’re able to separate work and home.”

“But when you live and work on a farm … the home and work line is very blurred

“There’s a definite mental health benefit associated with being able to literally escape from the farm … just to relax and get away from it all.”

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