Tourism dilemma

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

The battle against the coronavirus is far from over. Indeed, it seems it is starting a new chapter that may be even more challenging. Some new strains of the coronavirus appear to be more transmissible than previous strains and may evade current vaccines.

Dr. Anthony Fauci says new data shows COVID vaccines appear to be less effective against some new strains. Early findings indicate that the variant identified in South Africa, known as 501Y.V2, can evade the antibodies provided by some coronavirus treatments and may reduce the efficacy of the current line of available vaccines.

“Furthermore, 501Y.V2 shows substantial or complete escape from neutralizing antibodies in COVID-19 convalescent plasma,” researchers with South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases wrote. This raises the prospect of reinfection... and potentially reduces efficacy of current spike-based vaccines.

That being the situation we are in, what do we do about an industry like tourism that depends on moving a lot of people across the globe? That could cause the pandemic to worsen.

Some countries with a large dependence on tourism income are starting to test the waters and taking some risks. CNN reported last week that Sri Lanka has now opened to tourists from all countries.

Sri Lanka Minister of Tourism Prasanna Ranatunga made the official announcement at a press conference that “the livelihood of around three million people depends on tourism in Sri Lanka. It is our national responsibility to take into consideration the needs of our citizens that depend on this industry.”

Still conscious of the COVID-19 threat, Sri Lanka created a “bio bubble.” That means travelers on a short trip will just stay in their government-approved resort the entire time. Sri Lanka’s regulations allow guests to use facilities like pools, gyms, salons and restaurants, and not just be confined to their rooms.

People who are planning longer stays can move more freely within Sri Lanka once they complete their two-weeks of semi-quarantine.

Visitors must show proof of a negative coronavirus test taken within 96 hours of travel and fill out an online health declaration form. Guests will be tested again at their own expense on the fifth and seventh day after arriving, and people staying longer than seven days will have to take a third test the following week.

All prospective travelers must apply for a visa online and download the Visit Sri Lanka app. The app will be used for contact tracing, as well as storing information about test results and hotel bookings.

But will it work? An earlier attempt to do something similar in Thailand flopped. The Bangkok Post reported that after all the hoopla, very few came.

According to the Bangkok Post, foreign arrivals have failed to meet even rock-bottom expectations. Just 346 overseas visitors have entered the country on average each month on special visas since October. That’s well below the government’s target of about 1,200 and a tiny fraction of the more than three million who came before the pandemic.

And that’s the tourism dilemma. Policy makers are struggling to accommodate both tourism industry players calling for relaxed quarantine rules and public-health experts warning against putting people in danger.

The Thai government had been helping tourism businesses by focusing on domestic tourists and subsidizing the cost of hotel rooms, meals, and airfares. But domestic tourists can’t fill the gap left by foreign visitors.

The Bank of Thailand estimates that even in 2022, overseas visitors will still fall well short of the 40 million in 2019. It projects that 5.5 million people will visit this year and 23 million in 2022.

The Maldives had been more daring. It reopened to overseas tourists in July without requiring a quarantine, although a negative COVID-19 test is needed.

They had more than 172,000 arrivals since then, according to Maldives Immigration data. While new infections increased in the aftermath, they’ve since declined.

The bold move works for Maldives because tourism properties are often isolated on their own islands, unlike in Thailand and the Philippines where these are close to local residents.

The bold move allowed one hotel quoted by the Bangkok Post to report a 70 percent occupancy rate last month, a mouthwatering thought for most hotels elsewhere in the world.

For a while, it seemed sensible to allow a tourist a visit of less than 14 days, to stay inside the same resort and not leave (but can use the resort facilities). Since resorts are open-air, which is inherently low-risk for COVID-19, and provided the resorts enforce the usual protocols, the chance of infecting locals or other guests is relatively small.

But a resurgence of the virus is weakening the case for easing quarantine rules. Also, the incompetence of LGUs in managing the pandemic as happened in Boracay.

The Department of Tourism set aside P8 million for the swab testing of some 4,000 Boracay Island tourism workers. The money was made available to the Aklan provincial government to regularly test Boracay workers in October. By December DOT was complaining the provincial government was not testing.

Now there are a reported 15 workers in Shangri-la Boracay who tested positive to COVID. The hotel was ordered closed for over a week for disinfection. Because of its location on the island, away from most people, Shangri-La is ideal as a bubble resort.

Earlier, another luxury resort in Boracay’s Station 1 was found to have COVID positive staff. The employee is reportedly 28 years old, male, and took his day off on Dec. 14, 2020. He returned to Boracay the next day, and went to work.

Business Mirror reports: “resort’s guests were not informed of the COVID-positive employee, even if he worked at the food and beverage department. Whether he is a cook or a server, they should still have told the guests...”

We were worried about visitors infecting locals. But with all the tests a visitor is required to take, it is the local workers who may infect visitors. Testing should be easier and cheaper now with the approval of the saliva PCR test.

Hopefully, as vaccination efforts get on high gear, opening up becomes an option. But will there still be good resorts still in business by then?



Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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