Quality over quantity

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Last Wednesday I received an email from a hotel where I stayed in the picturesque coastal town of Estoril in the Portuguese Riviera. The email informed me that the hotel is back in business and ready to accept reservations.

I was surprised by how this piece of good news from across the planet so brightened my day. Not because I’m planning to return to Portugal for a visit anytime soon. But the sheer idea of the world gradually returning to business – even if it’s now business unusual – is so gladdening in this season of gloom.

Any improvement in the situation of the travel and tourism industry – the worst hit in this pandemic – is particularly heartening.

The industry employs a significant number of overseas Filipino workers. Around the world, airlines, airports, hotels and other accommodation establishments, resorts, cruise ships employ OFWs. There’s probably not a single commercial vessel on the planet that doesn’t have at least a Filipino or two in the crew.

The booming global travel industry led to the mushrooming of culinary schools all over the Philippines. Culinary arts replaced nursing and caregiving as the courses of choice for Filipinos who wanted quick employment overseas – and even locally for that matter, since the food service industry was also thriving in the Philippines before the pandemic.

So it’s also heartening to see restaurants and accommodation establishments in our country preparing to reopen in the new normal. I’ve also received email alerts from a few hotels in Metro Manila, announcing that their restaurants are now offering gourmet takeout and delivery services.

Local travel destinations are also gradually reopening, even if only for strictly domestic tourists for now.

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Today another piece of good news: domestic commercial flights have resumed, although still not for leisure purposes. We wish our two flag carriers – Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific – all the best in this challenging environment for the airline industry. Thousands of jobs are at stake.

Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat says even travel agencies are reporting a return of bookings.

You’d think with the lockdown and the emphasis on e-business, people would do away with middlemen for arranging trips. But Sec Berna told “The Chiefs” this week on OneNews / TV 5 that people still want the ease and efficiency that travel agencies can provide in planning trips. The efficiency is important particularly because travelers must navigate the new ways of doing business arising from coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

One upside of the new normal in travel and tourism is that industry players feel the need to reassure potential clients of their health safety apart from comfort and personal security.

In the past, user or customer reviews provided reliable testimonials on the quality of goods and services. But with establishments just reopening, who will give the initial reviews?

Sec Berna notes that accommodation establishments are now seeking – even if there is no such requirement – a certification of compliance with health protocols from the Department of Tourism, in coordination with the Department of Health. What the DOT requires is a Certificate of Authority to Operate in areas under modified GCQ.

Travelers may look for the special certification, equivalent to a seal of good housekeeping, especially for hotels and other accommodation establishments that are being used for the quarantine of returning OFWs as well as other persons suspected to have the coronavirus disease 2019. Going home late at night, I’ve seen buses used by the government for transporting the OFWs from ships docked in Manila Bay and from the NAIA to various hotels for COVID-19 quarantine.

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Restaurants are now preparing for the resumption of dine-in services within the month, with physical distancing and other hygiene protocols observed.

Sec Berna has stressed the importance of a “slow but sure” reopening of businesses. The reopening cannot come early enough for many micro, small and medium enterprises especially in the food service industry.

Last Tuesday, I visited the SM Mall of Asia for the first time since the ECQ, to buy vitamins. I was glad to find both GNC and Healthy Options open. But there were few shoppers around – surely depressing especially for the dining establishments that have resumed operations on a much-reduced capacity. Hawker Chan, the popular Michelin-starred Singaporean fast-food chain famous for its soy chicken, whose customers usually spilled over into the MOA ground floor aisles pre-pandemic, had only three persons inside at lunchtime, waiting for take-out orders while seated on stools safely spaced from each other.

Sec Berna refuses to give in to pessimism. The DOT is assisting industry players in utilizing cyberspace for sales, marketing and promotion. On April 22, the DOT launched the online leg of the Philippine Harvest trade fair, to give MSMEs market access for their products.

Physical distancing will be around for a long time, in hotels, tourist transport, even at tourist destinations that will now be compelled to impose caps on carrying capacity. This will typically cut earnings by half.

To make up for the lost earnings, the DOT is aiming to attract higher-paying tourists – “quality over quantity,” says Sec Berna.

This clientele, however, is typically more demanding, and the industry must be prepared to upgrade facilities and services. An upside of this effort is a sustained program to keep destinations, private premises and the general environment clean and safe.

Sec Berna admits feeling bad about losing momentum, noting that tourist arrivals in the country hit a record 8.26 million in 2019 – although it’s unclear how many of those were Chinese who obtained tourist visas on arrival so they could work for Philippine offshore gaming operators or POGO firms.

But nearly all economic sectors have suffered from the pandemic, with some industries such as aviation considering the pandemic their worst nightmare.

The DOT has come up with an apt slogan for the end of the nightmare (and we can be sure it will end): “Wake up in the Philippines.”

Here’s the spiel: Nothing can stop you from dreaming. As we wait for the day to travel once again, discover the wonders that await you in our 7,641 islands from the comfort of your home. Stay at home, dream, and wake up in the Philippines.

We can’t wait to wake up.


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