‘Fear factor’ to hound tourism
Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - June 12, 2020 - 12:00am

With around 7,641 islands to choose from, the Philippines is rife to rev back domestic tourism as a major driver of the country’s economy. As far as the Department of Tourism (DOT) sees it, these Philippine islands provide the “silver lining” in the darkened clouds on global travel following the outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus disease (C19) pandemic.

This is how the Philippine tourism industry looks at the opportunities and challenges in the “new normal” that the DOT led by Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat as they steer it towards recovery. The DOT chief disclosed about the government’s creation of “travel bubbles” starting with island resorts and other areas in the Philippines that have been spared from the highly infectious C19 contagion.

With the previous stringent lockdowns like those imposed here in the Philippines gradually relaxed since then by other C19-affected countries, Romulo-Puyat is confident the domestic tourism industry is ready to seize the opportunities coming out from this public health crisis. The challenge, she stressed, is how to encourage people it would be safe for them to go back on travelling amid the fear of getting sick of the deadly C19 infection.

“One thing we are looking at are travel bubbles, or travel corridors,” she announced. “Since we have 7,641 islands, we can actually look at particular islands that are zero-COVID, or practically very minimal COVID. We can first of course (see) if it’s safe for the domestic tourists to go to that place since close to none COVID (case), and eventually, we can open it to foreign tourists,” Romulo-Puyat cited.

As a key driver of the Philippine economy, the DOT chief pointed out as much as 12.7% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018 came from tourism receipts.

“Of this 12.7%, 11.1% is actually domestic tourism,” the DOT chief proudly noted.

After the global outbreak of C19 pandemic, official figures from the DOT shows that international arrivals for January to May 2020 declined by more than half, or 62.21%. Or this is from 3.49 million arrivals, foreign arrivals dropped 1.3 million for the same period last year. Consequently, estimated inbound tourism revenues for this period plunged 60.56 percent, or from P205.50 billion in the same period a year ago down to P81.05 billion.

The DOT Secretary is a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) that regularly conducts risk assessment of C19 infection and recalibrates the lockdown guidelines every 14 days period. After all, the primary task of the DOT is to ensure travellers – whether Filipinos or foreigners – would not be exposed nor even become spreaders of C19 infection.

The DOT “travel bubble” was warmly welcomed by the stakeholders who joined us at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum Webinar last Wednesday. They included Jose Clemente III, president of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines (TCP); Philippine Tour Operators Association (PHILTOA) president Cesar Cruz; Arthur Lopez, president of the Philippine Hotel Owners Association (PHOA); Ricky Isla president and chief executive officer of Air Asia Philippines and also the president of the Air Carriers Association of the Philippines (ACAP).

According to the DOT chief, New Zealand and Australia actually started the “travel bubble” between the two countries that now have zero, or close to none COVID-19 cases. “We were telling them that there’s an option for them to fly from Australia to let’s say Bohol, or direct to Kalibo,” Puyat added. She noted both Bohol and Boracay have zero, or close to none cases of COVID-19.

The DOT plans to create “travel bubbles” also possibly between neighboring countries in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region and market initially Bohol and Boracay. The Philippines is singled out by an international travel group to create its own “travel bubbles” to jumpstart the recovery of tourism in this part of the world.

In the particular situation of Bohol, the DOT chief revealed her talks with Gov. Arthur Yap who informed her that their province is ready and prepared to accept travellers to their tourist destination areas. According to Yap, the provincial government has built a COVID testing laboratory and received from Aboitiz Foundation a donation of real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) machine that will facilitate testing of inbound and outbound travellers.

Speaking for TCP, Clemente welcomed the creation of “travel bubbles” with international destinations as part of the economic recovery program of the government to bail out their moribund industry. For the local tour operators, Cruz believes these “travel bubbles” can be matched by “green lane circuits” which are basically destinations in the country that have opened up for tourism and are ready with the health protocols.

Isla told our news forum airlines initially resumed their flights in accordance with the IATF guidelines of areas placed under the general community quarantine (GCQ). He believes the domestic flights can slowly resume by July or August once more GCQs areas are declared by the IATF. But international flights, he conceded, may have to take a back seat for this year. Overall, the ACAP looks forward to get a “good takeoff” for tourism.

For the hotel owners and operators, Lopez expressed their gratitude to the DOT for tapping their hotels as quarantine facilities for returning overseas Filipino workers and health care workers that sustained their operations while this public health crisis is still ongoing. “Our DOT is doing their best to get as much travel to the Philippines and around the country. But to be practical about it, because of the fear factors, international and local travellers will have to think twice before they travel,” Lopez conceded.

Equaled only by the bubbly personality of Romulo-Puyat, the DOT’s “travel bubbles” might get burst also by local government executives.

A number of these Mayors and Governors refuse to reopen their local airports, also because of these “fear factors” of contamination from C19 contagion.

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