This file photo from September 2019 shows Gwanghwamun Gate and Gyeongbokjung Palace as seen from the rooftop of the Seoul National Museum.
Philstar.com/Patricia Lourdes Viray, file
Task force to study possible travel ban on South Korea amid rise in COVID-19 cases
Prinz Magtulis (Philstar.com) - February 23, 2020 - 5:40pm

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 7:38 p.m.) — The Philippines is studying the possibility of a travel ban on South Korea amid a spike in Coronavirus Disease-19 cases (COVID-19) in the country's largest tourism market, a move that would only cement a bleak outlook for the fledgling dollar-making industry.

"The task force on emerging infectious diseases may take it up at its next meeting," Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said in a text message to Philstar.com when asked if a travel ban is being studied.

There is no firmed-up schedule for the meeting yet, he added.

The Bureau of Immigration, which implements travel bans and restrictions, is under the Department of Justice.

Asked whether a travel ban is being considered, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat replied: "No."

The IATF-EID has representatives from the Office of the President and from the following departments:

  • Health
  • Justice
  • Interior and Local Government
  • Tourism
  • Foreign Affairs
  • Social Welfare and Development
  • National Defense
  • Transportation

Also represented in the task force are the Presidential Communications Operations Office, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Bureau of Immigration, Civil Aeronautics Board, Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines, Philippine Ports Authority, Office of Civil Defense, and Philippine National Police.

The task force had previously considered a travel ban on Singapore—where a Filipino has tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs on Sunday—when the country had around 50 confirmed cases earlier in February.

South Korea has more than 600 confirmed cases so far.

Travel ban to hit tourism sector if imposed

The ban, if imposed, would deal a fresh blow to the local tourism industry, whose last year's stellar performance is already at risk of getting stalled due to existing travel prohibitions to and from China, the country's second largest tourism market, as well as Chinese territories, Hong Kong and Macau.

READ: Government may push for visa-free entry to South Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-In placed his country under "red" alert that gives local officials power to take "unprecedented measures" to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The decision followed a fifth death and a massive 20-fold increase in confirmed infected cases to 602 over the past five days. The cases were traced from members of a religious sect in Daegu, around 3 hours drive south of Seoul. 

Government data show South Korea has been the Philippines' largest tourist source for the past five years, with last year alone seeing about 1.9 million Koreans flying in, equivalent to 24% of total foreign visitors.

Koreans are also the Philippines' largest spending tourists. In November 2019, the latest period on which data is available, Korean visitors shelled out an average of $227.68 million. Chinese tourists were next with average spending of only $152.44 million during the same month. 

Reciprocally, there were 417,518 Filipinos who visited South Korea from January to November last year, while 62,398 Filipino nationals were living and working there as of end-2019.

DFA: Delay non-essential travel

In an advisory on Sunday night, the Department of Foreign Affairs advised Filipinos in South Korea to monitor and comply with advisories from South Korean health authorities.

"During emergency situations, Filipinos in South Korea may contact the emergency hotline number of the Philippine Embassy in Seoul at (+82) 10-9263-8119. In addition, Filipinos in South Korea experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should immediately contact the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) at 1339," the DFA also said.

The DFA said it has not received reports of any Filipinos in South Korea testing positive for the novel coronavirus but also said it will monitor the situation and coordinate with Filipinos there.

"Currently, there is no travel ban imposed on Filipinos traveling to South Korea but travelers are cautioned to delay non-essential travel to the country as a precaution."

OFWs allowed to retun to Hong Kong and Macau

Last week, the government allowed Filipinos working in Hong Kong and Macau to return to their employers in the islands, but essentially fell short of lifting foreign travel between the Philippines and the two Chinese jurisdictions. 

The government also briefly expanded the travel ban to Taiwan before lifting it a few days later, citing the "strict measures they are undertaking, as well as the protocols they are implementing to address the COVID-19."

Under the Duterte administration, tourism is slowly becoming an essential dollar engine for the Philippines, hitting record-highs in both visitor arrivals and tourism receipts last year. 

A record 8.26 million tourists visited the Philippines in 2019, up 15.2% year-on-year. From January to November, tourism activities already generated $8.84 billion (P458.28 billion) in revenues, latest government data showed.

While much of the tourism surge was fueled by a rush of Chinese tourists, thanks to the government's closer ties with Beijing, Koreans have remained the country's top tourist market. Prior to COVID-19, the government expected to attract more than two million Koreans into the country this year. — with Rosette Adel

READ: ‘Old meets new’ in Seoul’s urban regeneration sites

2019-NCOV COVID-19 NOVEL CORONAVIRUS SOUTH KOREA
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