Young people and wealthy, white Canadians were more likely to travel overnight over the holidays despite provincial lockdown measures, according to new analysis of mobile phone data.
Data analysis by marketing research firm Environics Analytics for The Globe and Mail suggests that more than a million Canadians travelled away from their home postal code over the Christmas break.
The federal government continues to advise against all non-essential travel abroad, and many provinces remain under strict lockdown orders that limit or outright ban gatherings.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the report Friday by urging anyone planning a trip abroad to cancel it.
“My message to Canadians remains clear, no one should be taking a vacation abroad right now,” Trudeau said at his briefing Friday.
With March break around the corner, the prime minister emphasized: “Don’t book a trip for spring break.”
Approximately 1.2 million people in Canada spent at least one night away from home between Dec. 23 and Dec. 30, according to the Environics Analytics findings.
Compared to travel rates in the week before Christmas, young people living in urban areas and Canadians from wealthy, predominantly white areas both increased their overnight travel over the holidays by around 20 per cent.
Seniors also helped drive the surge, but Vito De Filippis, director of business development at Environics Analytics, said rates of travel among seniors were already “really high compared to everybody else.”
“Maybe there was some of that Christmas travel going on, but I think this is just a group that tends to, for whatever reason, need to stay with friends or family on a regular basis,” De Filippis told CTVNews.ca on Friday, citing potential childcare or health concerns among seniors.
Overall, holiday travels were 58 per cent lower than the same week in 2019, before the pandemic.
“So for the most part, people are listening to the recommendations and staying home,” De Filippis said.
One important distinction: Canadians living in working-class or rural areas who typically travel more for work or day-to-day activities, such as groceries, did not see an uptick in overnight travel over the holidays.
“We actually didn’t see that really pop for these overnight visitors,” De Filippis said.
Ontario and Quebec saw the highest number of overnight travellers, but that can likely be attributed to the fact that they’re the most populous provinces, De Filippis said. The largest growth in week-over-week travel was seen in smaller provinces, such as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, where case counts are lower and fewer restrictions were in place over Christmas.
Vancouver led the country with week-over-week growth in overnight holiday travel, at 24 per cent, followed by Montreal and Calgary (16 per cent) and Toronto (15 per cent).
“A lot of that growth from the provinces was driven heavily by the cities,” De Filippis said.
Environics estimates that 3.3 per cent of Canadians travelled over the holidays. Two-thirds of those who travelled were white, while one-third were part of a visible minority group.
The analysis was based on a database of location data comprising 20 million mobile phones, which analysts then cross-referenced with census demographics and postal codes to build a profile of who was travelling. No identifying details, such as names, were part of the analysis.
“All we know is a device and we know locations, which is an opt-in measure on any cellular phone. So people can opt out of providing their signal,” De Filippis said. “We know nothing about the device other than it exists.”
Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair echoed Trudeau’s words at the federal ministers COVID-19 briefing Friday.
“To be very clear, it is not the time to travel,” Blair said.
“Temporary restrictions remain on optional and discretionary travel … we will continue to strongly advise Canadians against travel abroad, unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he said, adding that the government has scaled up the presence of border patrol and public health officers to ensure travellers follow quarantine protocols.
“Quarantine has been, and continues to be, our most effective measure,” Blair reiterated.
Minister Dominic LeBlanc also urged Canadians to “stay close to home,” and avoid any international or even domestic travel, saying the cabinet was considering even more stringent measures on anyone coming back into the country from abroad.
Currently travellers must show a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of departure to be allowed to fly into Canada, with a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon their arrival.