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Travellers rattled by Canada-India row, but trip plans remain unchanged

A view of the Golden Temple, Sikhism's holiest shrine, in Amritsar, India, Sept.20, 2023. Travellers and the sector that relies on them are rattled by heightened tensions between Canada and India, but see no reason to rethink their overseas plans for now. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Prabhjot Gill

MONTREAL — Travellers and the transportation sector at large have been rattled by the sudden ramp-up in tensions between Canada and India, but see no reason to rethink their overseas plans for now.

"People are a little scared," said Urvi Chawla, who works at Sahib Travel Agency in Brampton, Ont.

The agency has been inundated with questions about visas and flight availability. However, no signs of a dip in demand have emerged.

"People are asking if anything’s going wrong or if flights will be cancelled," she said.

On Wednesday, Indian officials warned students bound for Canada of security risks here, ratcheting up a spat that erupted after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged that India may have been involved in the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in suburban Vancouver.

The fallout continues to play out, right down to the retail level.

"'Should I make the booking or not? What about relations between India and Canada?'" Chawla said, paraphrasing her customers.

"We don’t have any answers, because we don’t know ... but the flights are going."

There were 212 one-way flights between India and Canada in August, according to aviation data firm Cirium,about 14 per cent more than a year earlier. The increase comes after a bilateral deal in November that lifted the cap on plane trips from 35 per week for each country to an unlimited number.

“We are not seeing any change in India bookings,” said Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.

Air Canada — the only airline besides Air India to offer direct flights between the two countries — operates 19 trips a week to New Delhi and Mumbai, mainly from Toronto but Montreal as well.

The airline suspended its Vancouver-New Delhi flight after Russia imposed an airspace ban on most Western countries in February 2022 after its invasion of Ukraine, forcing carriers to make costly, time-consuming detours daily.

As the travel industry recovers from a devastating COVID-19 pandemic, University of Manitoba transport institute director Barry Prentice says the tiff would likely hurt operators only if it spirals out of control, since the pull of education and loved ones remains far stronger than the rhetoric of a diplomatic rift. 

We aren't at that point, he said. 

"It's obviously just political duelling going on," he said.

"It's an effort by the government of India to try to obfuscate the situation where they've been charged as having hit crews going out and dealing with people they don't like."

Tensions flared Monday after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canadian intelligence services are investigating "a potential link" between India's government and the death of Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar. The 45-year-old was gunned down in his vehicle as he was leaving the parking lot of a gurdwara — a Sikh place of worship — in Surrey, B.C., on June 18.

The Indian external affairs ministry deemed claims of a connection "absurd and motivated" and issued an advisory Wednesday warning Indian nationals and students in Canada to be cautious due to "politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence."

Randeep Sarai, a Liberal MP representing Surrey Centre in B.C., rejected the portrait of danger and discord painted by Indian officials.

"Canadians are very safe and any traveller that has been to Canada has been very safe," he told reporters in Ottawa.

"I have heard of no incident between any students or any disharmony of those that have been studying here."

Asked whether Sikh Canadians and others who head to India should have safety concerns, he replied: "I hope not, and I trust that Global Affairs will continue to work with India and make sure that any traveller that's going from here — Sikhs or otherwise — are safe and secure in India."

For now, the urge to cross the ocean remains strong, and has had little impact on Canada's tourism industry in either direction.

"The motivation to visit friends and family outweighs any travel advisories. People will still do what they need to do or want to do," said Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C.

"I believe they are reassured by other residents that Canada and British Columbia is very safe to travel to."

India remains a small market for the tourism sector in Canada, and accounts for about one to three per cent of leisure travellers who arrive in B.C. each year, Judas said. Most of those are here to study or see loved ones — the country is home to about 1.86 million Indo-Canadians, according to the 2021 census — on top of a small cohort of business people, he said.

Two more travellers may join the transpacific flow shortly. On Monday, Canada expelled a senior Indian diplomat, and India has responded in kind, while claiming the move came out of concerns that Canada is harbouring extremists who want a separate country for Sikhs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.

— With files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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