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Delayed vaccine to spoil Filipinos' summer on already deserted beaches
This September 2020 file photo shows tourists visiting Boracay island in Malay, Aklan.
Malay Municipal Tourism Office/Facebook

Delayed vaccine to spoil Filipinos' summer on already deserted beaches

Rosette Adel (Philstar.com) - February 24, 2021 - 4:00pm

MANILA, Philippines — Ysrael Dumasig, 30, is not looking forward to summer this year. Unlike in pre-pandemic years when his family would typically go on vacation, Dumasig said he would rather just stay home.

“We originally have plans, but getting all travel requirements is such a hassle and we are also wary of exposure,” Dumasig, a reporter for a foreign media outlet, said in an online exchange.

Marcial Confiado Jr., 28, from Pasig is likewise shelving his birthday getaway with friends. “We were already making plans to visit Boracay from March 4-8 even with the pandemic. But because of the requirements, we were deterred,” he said.

“Add to that news that there were some visitors faking their COVID-19 tests, plus we don’t really expect to have a good time while we are there, knowing there are fewer people,” Confiado said.

The likes of Dumasig and Confiado are delaying the economy’s rebirth from last year’s damaging lockdowns as a response to the pandemic’s spread, and all for the right reasons. While summer of 2020 was already killed by an unprecedented health crisis, the government was hoping this year’s dry season will see holiday-makers leaving their homes for prime beaches and other once-buzzing tourist destinations.

Famous for having spectacular sunrise and sunset views, Boracay Island is reopened to tourists from General Community Quarantine (GCQ) areas, following the approval of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases' Resolution No. 74.
DOT/Released

Several plans were laid out to get this going in the past days, foremost was the shift to a modified general community quarantine and allow more establishments like cinemas to resume operations. Another proposal from the local government department wanted to drop a mandatory swab testing for travelers, things that tourists are now spending time and money on just to get a much-deserved break.

But easing requirements did not push through, partly because of public clamor for the government to get the vaccination rolling first before allowing more people out. It is this crisis in confidence that is putting a bet on domestic tourism to offset losses from the lack of foreign tourists at risk of failing.

“We know that tourism has taken a setback, and we believe domestic tourism will be the answer,” Eugene Yap, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of the Philippines, said in an online forum on Wednesday.

“That is why we want all types of business to open up because the more people have jobs, the more people have money and the more people will patronize tourism,” he said.

That is appearing to be easier said than done. In Boracay Island in Aklan, the first tourist site to reopen for business in June 2020, domestic tourist arrivals have barely picked up. From February 1 to 21, regional tourism data showed 11,278 tourists visited the world renowned beach, all set to beat January’s 11,898 but down from December’s 15,307.

To be fair, that was already nearly six times the number in October when only 2,630 visited Boracay shores. But that pales in comparison with the average of 77,703 local tourists who visited per month in 2019. Jose Clemente III, president of Tourism Congress of the Philippines, said there is a lot of catching up to do. 

“There are indications that Boracay is picking up gradually…But it is still a far cry from what the arrivals were before,” Clemente said in a text message.

Low tourist numbers are expected to disadvantage businesses like that of Lea Wong, director of sales and marketing at The Muse Hotel located in the island. Wong is also one of the founders of the One Boracay Hotel Group, an initiative of sales and marketing people who were affected by the island's 6-month closure in 2018 when it was rehabilitated.

“Data shows that tourism arrival is not even half of what the island have after the rehabilitation which is also incomparable to how it was prior the rehabilitation. But it is getting better. This is better than none,” Wong said.

Apart from being wary of catching the deadly disease, requirements to travel are deterring people from taking a vacation, particularly the costly RT-PCR negative test results which is valid only within 72 hours from testing. This means vacation planners would have to arrive in their destination within 3 days or risk having to take a new test, and spending more. 

The government tried to alleviate expenses by shouldering half the cost of these tests in select hospitals like the Philippine General Hospital (PGH). But requirements to avail of subsidy are likewise a hindrance, with only 4,435 people getting assisted in PGH as of February 15.

The result is travel appetite is not even there even for nearer destinations that can be reached by car for urban dwellers. In Baguio, around four-hour drive from Metro Manila, 14,855 local tourists visited last month, down 22.8% from December. In Bohol in the Visayas, local visitors reached only 1,066 in February 1-19, 2 months since the province started accepting tourists again.

In El Nido in Palawan, back to business since October, things were likewise not improving. Hotels are seeing occupancy rates of 20-30%, no different from last year when lockdowns were more stringent.

With foreign borders still heavily regulated, the Philippines is banking on domestic tourism to counter last year’s drastic fall in foreign tourism revenues to just P82 billion. But while the weather may be on its side, the country's previously ardent beach lovers are just not about to go out without protection. Dumasig himself said he is willing to wait until after the hard times.

“We might just wait for the vaccine. So in two years maybe,” he said.

BERNADETTE ROMULO-PUYAT BORACAY BORACAY CLOSURE DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM NEW NORMAL PHILIPPINE TOURISM TOURISM PROMOTIONS BOARD
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