Tourist arrivals drop 40% in Q1 but target revisions 'not a priority'

Rosette Adel - Philstar.com
Tourist arrivals drop 40% in Q1 but target revisions 'not a priority'
Passengers from the luxury passenger cruise ship World Dream wear facemasks as they visit a theme park in Manila after the luxury cruise ship with more than 700 passengers, mostly from China and Hong Kong, arrived the day before at the port in Manila on Jan. 29, 2020. T
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines — Foreign tourist arrivals likely dropped 40% year-on-year in the first quarter, but record-high targets will remain for now as the government is still preoccupied responding to the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) outbreak.

While official figures are not yet available, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat told Philstar.com “the estimate is 40% decrease” on visitor arrivals for the first three months, with tourists in March likely dropping by as much as 70% annually.

The massive declines demonstrate the full impact of COVID-19 on the tourism sector, which as early as January, felt the bite of the pandemic from flight and hotel booking cancellations to dismal tourist spending. The impact became more pronounced from March 17, when the Luzon lockdown commenced, completely sealing off the island from travel.

While the community quarantine would make beating the 9.2-million visitor arrival goal more farfetched, Puyat said now is not the time to worry about reaching targets.

“With the ongoing COVID-19 response, honestly, I think that’s not a priority,” Puyat said in a phone interview.

“Maybe when the pandemic eases, we will get to that,” she said on Wednesday evening.

As it is, the tourism sector is already showing signs of substantial damage from the coronavirus. Travel agencies, airlines and hotels suffering from cancelled trips have separately asked the government for a lifeline, which so far the finance department managing state funds has been lukewarm to give.

Under the Duterte administration, tourism became a considerable dollar earner for the Philippines. Last year’s record-high of 8.2 million visitors translated to revenues of P482.15 billion from tourist activities, also a record-high. 

No need to revise targets

Sustaining that rising trend is now under threat with COVID-19 likely to linger for a while, but private tourism representatives said it may also be pointless to tinker with the target now.

“While the current situation continue to unravel, we are unable to place a realistic estimate in lieu of the set target amidst the uncertainty of the times,” said Ritchie Tuaño, president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association, an industry group.

Robert Zozobrado, president of Pacific Asia Travel Association, a group of airlines, hotels and restaurants, agreed. “I don't prefer to revise the target. We're left with no choice but to accept that we'll never be able to reach any target we will set because there is no market to speak of,” he said in a text message.

“The worldwide tourism industry is at a standstill,” he added.

Even if assuming that the situation improves in the second half of the year and flights resumed, Zozobrado said foreign travel is highly unlikely to fully restart as an industry this year. “We’re left with the arrivals we had for the first quarter of this year,” he said.

Focus on aid

With this year completely scratched off for tourism, Tuaño suggested the industry to look forward, and begin planning how it would adopt to the new normal. There are signs this is already happening, with flag-carrier Philippine Airlines last week unveiling new suits for their cabin crew to protect them from infection while flying.

“We have to assure them that their health and safety in all aspects of their travel are taken care (of),” Tuaño said.

For his part, Zozobrado said the government should give out direct and indirect subsidies. “We, stakeholders, can weather this storm and keep us alive with subsidies, interest-free loans, tax cuts/holidays, (to) ensure our survival until the time when people feel safe to travel again,” he said.











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