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Unvaccinated Canadians will soon be allowed to travel within and out of Canada.
The federal government will suspend its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Ottawa announced on Tuesday, allowing unvaccinated Canadian citizens and permanent residents to travel domestically by air and train, and internationally by air as of June 20. It will also lift its vaccine mandate for federal employees, including the RCMP and federally regulated transportation sector workers.
"It's clear that the COVID situation is not the same now as it was last fall when we implemented the vaccine mandate for travellers," Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
Ottawa first introduced a vaccine mandate on Oct. 30 last year. The mandate required that all passengers over the age of 12 departing from a Canadian airport be fully vaccinated in order to travel. It also applied to rail passengers on Via Rail and Rocky Mountaineer trains, as well as marine passengers on non-essential vessels such as cruise ships.
While air and rail travellers will no longer need to be vaccinated in order to travel, the mandate will still remain in place for cruise ship passengers and crews, "given the unique nature of cruise ships including the fact that passengers are in close contact with each other for extended periods of time," the government said. Mask requirements for planes and trains will also remain in place, Alghabra said, calling it "minor inconvenience" that still provides a benefit to passengers.
Unvaccinated Canadian travellers re-entering the country will still have to provide a pre-entry test result, quarantine for 14 days and could be subject to Day 1 and Day 8 testing.
Vaccine requirements will also still apply to international travellers coming into Canada.
"In order for us to continue to protect the demands on our public health care system, we want to make sure that incoming travellers are at minimum vaccinated," Alghabra said.
The decision to lift the vaccine mandate for Canadian travellers comes a few days after the government suspended random COVID-19 testing at all Canadian airports through to June 30.
Pressure for Ottawa to drop its vaccine mandates has ramped up in recent weeks, as delays continue to plague the country's major airports, particularly at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc says the decision to lift the mandates "was not about shortening the wait times that are currently being experienced at some of Canada's airports."
"These wait times are mainly caused by staffing shortages," LeBlanc said.
"The adjustments we're making today are based on science and they will not have an impact immediately on these airport delays. We remain committed to reducing the wait times at Canada's airports."
There's still a lot more work to do."Monette Pasher, interim president of the Canadian Airport Council
Monette Pasher, interim president of the Canadian Airport Council, said in an interview that the lifting of the vaccine mandate is "good news for travel and tourism" and that being able to bring back trained workers is "a step forward" to relieving the bottlenecks seen at Canadian airports. But she added that more still needs to be done to help ease delays, particularly when it comes to international arrivals.
"In terms of our international borders, there's still a lot more work to do," Pasher said.
"There's still federal government processes and restrictions that need to be addressed to fully address the bottleneck. That's why we have called on the government to join the list of over 50 countries that have already removed all the barriers for international travel."
Alghabra said that the government is meeting daily, particularly at Pearson Airport, to address potential bottlenecks and that it has seen improvements in the last several weeks.
The Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable, an industry lobby group, had pushed for the government to remove vaccine mandates for both Canadian travellers and international visitors.
Beth Potter, chief executive officer of the Tourism Association of Canada and member of the roundtable, said in an interview that international travel levels are still half of what they were in 2019. The group expects that international travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2025.
"It's urgent that we get these fixed in order for us to be able to see the smooth movement of folks across the border again," Potter said.
"The economy will not be completely back to what it was until the travel and tourism industry is back and we need to do everything that we can to shorten the timeframe which that it takes for that to happen."
Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.