Why 2021 could be another ‘gangbusters’ summer for Canadian road trip vacations

Highways could be flooded with vehicles this summer as people hit the road to escape their homes and look for a change of scenery during the pandemic, experts say, regardless of prices at the pump.

Gasoline consumption is still below pre-COVID levels as many people continue to work from home, but the summer driving season is expected to be busier than normal this year.

“My family, that’s something we’ve been discussing. Where can we go, where we can do anything that is COVID-compliant but gets us out of our normal routine? I think a lot of people are having that same kind of conversation,” said Rory Johnston, managing director at Toronto-based investment firm Price Street Inc.

“I think there is a reasonable thesis for a kind of gangbusters summer.”

Typically, prices at the pump can dictate how far people are willing to travel, but Johnston doesn’t think it will be a factor this summer as most people have been able to save money because of reduced travel over the last year combined with the appeal of escaping from the city.

Gasoline prices are already above pre-COVID levels and averaged just under $1.28 per litre across the country on Tuesday, according to Natural Resources Canada.

‘Where can I go?’

“My main concern right now is not fuel prices, it’s where can I go and I think I’m not alone in that,” he said. 

Considering more people are receiving the vaccine everyday, coupled with government stimulus spending, and restrictions on international travel, “you could have a very rip roaring summer” on the roads and highways, he said.

A digital sign on Highway 417 approaching downtown Ottawa tells motorists to stay home as much as possible in mid-January 2021. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

The oil industry has similar expectations as refineries are ramping up production in anticipation of fuel demand rising this summer.

“This driving season I suspect is going to be off the charts and in terms of people wanting to get back to their life,” said Cenovus Energy chief executive Alex Pourbaix to investors on Tuesday. 

The Canadian oil producer operates refineries in Canada and the U.S., in addition to the Husky gas station chain.

There is caution though, especially in Canada as vaccination rates remain low compared to the United States, many government restrictions remain in place, and the country could be entering the third wave of the pandemic.

For instance, Manitoba continues to have a public health order requiring 14 days of self-isolation for anyone arriving or returning to the province.

“What our variants going to look like? Are we going to see a full open [of the economy] in summer, fall or winter?” said Andrew Botterill, an oil and gas analyst with Deloitte.

Still, there is more optimism compared to last year since there are vaccines available, he said.

“If we’re going to do any holidays this summer, it may very well be in our vehicle and that might be the best we can do,” he said.

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