'Time to vacation,' Palace says, encouraging Filipinos to visit newly-reopened Boracay island

'Time to vacation,' Palace says, encouraging Filipinos to visit newly-reopened Boracay island
In this Oct. 5, 2020, photo, presidential spokesman Harry Roque holds a virtual briefing from Boracay island with Aklan Governor Florencio Miraflores, Malay Mayor Frolibar Bautista and Dr. Henry Chusuey, chairman of the Henann Group of Resorts.
Released / Harry Roque, Facebook

MANILA, Philippines — Presidential spokesman Harry Roque on Monday urged Filipinos to vacation on Boracay island, which opened its doors to tourists on October 1 after seven months of closure. 

This new call for leisurely travel comes from Malacañang more than 200 days after the country's capital region was first placed under lockdown. 

"The president's message is, we must live despite COVID-19... It is time for us to take a vacation after a very long lockdown, especially in Metro Manila," Roque said in Filipino as he held a virtual briefing from the top tourist destination. 

"What I want to do, the reason we're here, is to encourage the public because if we do not visit Boracay and planes are empty, the flights will be canceled," he added in Filipino. 

Under guidelines issued by the Boracay Interagency Task Force (BIATF), tourists from destinations under a general community quarantine and modified GCQ classifications including the National Capital Region are now allowed to visit the island. All visitors must test negative for COVID-19 via RT-PCR or swab test 48 to 72 hours prior to their travel. 

Aklan Gov. Florencio Miraflores said that only a few tourists have arrived since the island's reopening, ranging from 35 to 53 arrivals per day. However, he said he expects these numbers to gradually rise. 

"All it takes is a little confidence. The fear of travel is still there ... Our tourists should not worry because here on the island of Boracay, they are safe from COVID," Miraflores added in a mix of English and Filipino. 

Frolibar Bautista, acting mayor of Malay, emphasized that Boracay has been coronavirus-free for months and assured that the people on the island comply with health protocols. 

The country's top destination spot opened its doors to tourists from Western Visayas on June 16 and has yet to record a COVID-19 infection since. 

Bautista said 204 hotel and accommodation establishments have been allowed to operate by the trade department while his own office has issued 365 certificates to operate.  

Private sector pushes for cheaper, faster swab tests to attract more tourists

Henry Chusuey, chairman of the Henann Group of Resorts, said that only 20 of his resort's 1,600 rooms  on the island are currently occupied. He added that while his establishments used to employ 2,200 in Boracay, only 100 of them have returned since the island's reopening. 

"If it is easier for the tourist to come, I'm sure the work of our workers will return. But it has to be easy for the tourists to come here," Chusuey said partially in Filipino, pushing for antigen swab testing at the Caticlan airport. 

Antigen tests are swab tests which are cheaper and yield faster results than RT-PCR tests but are still being studied by the IATF for approval. The World Health Organization has only recently approved a list of antigen tests for emergency use. 

The US Food and Drug Administration has said that while positive results of antigen tests are "highly accurate," negative results may need to be confirmed by an RT-PCR test. This means that antigen tests cannot "definitively rule out" active COVID-19 infection.

Roque stressed that antigen tests must first pass the pilot study being conducted in Baguio City before they can be approved to screen domestic travels. 

"Antigen [tests] are still being pilot tested, we can't sacrifice the health of those from Boracay," he said in Filipino.

Even as top tourist spots such as Baguio City and Boracay Island reopen, the Philippines continues to log thousands of new coronavirus infections daily. Latest figures from the Department of Health place the country's caseload at 324,762 and the death toll at 5,840. 

READ: Rapid antibody test, antigen test, RT-PCR test: How are they different? — Bella Perez-Rubio

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