Tourism in the ICU
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 14, 2020 - 12:00am

Duterte supporters can heave a sigh of relief: the President is disqualified from serving as guinea pig, as he has offered, for Sputnik V.

Better known in the Philippines as Putin-Cee, Sputnik V has been touted by Russian President Vladimir Putin as the world’s first vaccine against SARS-coronavirus-2, the pathogen that causes the killer coronavirus disease 2019.

Sputnik V can’t be used on people younger than 18 or older than 59, on pregnant women, those with comorbidities and COVID-19 survivors. This is according to Dr. Ted Herbosa, special adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19. So by age and comorbidities, President Duterte is disqualified.

In case Putin makes good on his government’s promise to donate millions of Sputnik V doses to the Philippines, the Duterte administration will have to find another guinea pig, who can reassure Pinoys – made vaccine-averse by the Dengvaxia controversy – about the safety and efficacy of Putin Cee.

Whichever country comes up first with a COVID vaccine that has hurdled the globally accepted scientific vetting process, it can’t come soon enough for our battered economy.

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The typical Filipino worries not only about getting sick but also infecting members of the household. The average Filipino family size is five; it tends to be bigger in low-income communities. Higher-income households, on the other hand, usually have house helpers and drivers.

With community transmission driving infection numbers to new record highs, many people are in fact more wary these days of places and activities with potentials for COVID-19 infection.

The rare times that my younger brother drops by my home, for example, the visits are mainly for essential errands, during which he wears a face mask throughout (a face shield has now been added) and maintains a two-meter distance from everyone except the dogs. (He might eventually reconsider proximity to the dogs.)

Precautionary measures these days include eschewing family gatherings, even for birthdays (cops, of course, are exempted with their mañanitas) – whether in restaurants or even at home. Taking family trips even to destinations near Metro Manila, such as Tagaytay, is out of the question. The idea is that an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure.

I’m guessing that such precautionary measures are becoming quite common these days. And it’s bad news for business. Staying at home and sticking to home cooking, while recommended by health experts, spell disaster for dining establishments and the tourism industry.

Even with the easing of quarantine rules, people are worried about air travel or riding in tour buses, or any vehicle for that matter (especially air-conditioned) that is used by strangers.

As a result, our travel industry is currently intubated in the intensive care unit. Industry players said this week that from March to July, their sector lost a whopping P190 billion – and the bleeding continues.

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The industry was disheartened by House Bill 6953 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, which the House of Representatives recently passed on third and final reading.

HB 6953 allots P10 billion not to tourism-related businesses but to the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority, whose parent agency is the Department of Tourism (DOT). TIEZA, as the name implies, handles tourism infrastructure development and regulation of areas classified as tourism enterprise zones. Another P100 million is allocated under HB 6953 for training and subsidies for tourist guides.

Tourism organizations are proposing that P9.5 billion instead be allocated for the DOT to assist critically impacted businesses in the sector. This can be done, they say, through low-interest loans, or the issuance of loan guarantees with terms of up to five years through government financing institutions, for the impacted businesses’ maintenance and operating expenses. Credit facilities through GFIs will also be used for the upgrading or rehabilitation of establishments to help them become compliant with the new health protocols.

The remaining P500 million of the P10-billion funding can be used to set up COVID testing centers in tourist destinations, according to the industry players.

In their letter to the two chambers of Congress, the tourism organizations pointed out that travel restrictions and quarantine measures during the pandemic affected not only major tourism businesses but also micro, small and medium enterprises including community-based operations, “which comprise a majority of businesses in the industry.”

“It is vital that urgent support and mitigation packages are implemented to protect jobs and ensure business viability during and after the crisis,” they stressed.

Industry players are hoping for tax cuts, subsidies for affected companies and workers, and support in marketing and promotion as global travel gradually resumes.

They estimate that the Tourism Response and Recovery Action Plan will need P92.45 billion – with the response and recoil investment estimated at P74.39 billion and the recovery phase costing P18.06 billion.

In 2019, the travel industry accounted for 12.7 percent of gross domestic product and 13.5 percent of national employment – about 5.7 million workers. In the absence of a COVID vaccine that has been globally vetted for safety and efficacy, the industry will remain in the ICU. The P10 billion could at least help the industry get out of intubation.

Bayanihan 2 is supposed to be a recovery bill. With House Bill 6953, you wonder whose recovery lawmakers have in mind.

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