Bohol wants own travel bubbles

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic struck us last year, a minimum of 30,000 a day of local and foreign tourists and travellers arrive and leave the island province of Bohol. When the Philippines and other COVID-affected countries closed down last year their borders to prevent the spread of the pandemic, this daily volume of traffic of people coming and leaving Bohol shrunk to a paltry 3,959 local arrivals since December last year todate.

Bohol Governor Arthur C. Yap glumly pointed to this present situation in their province that once enjoyed a very vibrant tourism industry. Only two years ago, no less than President Rodrigo Duterte led the ceremonial opening of the newly built international Panglao International Airport to accommodate more travellers. Located in the most popular beach resort destination in Bohol, Panglao airport boasts of handling at least two million passengers a year.

In Tagalog dialect, the word “panglaw” means lonely. The situation in Panglao International Airport can be described the same way. There is no more bustle and hustle of foreign tourists and local travellers after the COVID-19 pandemic reached our shores last year.

This stark reality, however, does not dishearten Yap. With its No.1 revenue earnings from tourism ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, the Bohol Governor is picking up the latest “travel bubbles” being pushed by the national government to gradually re-open the Philippine economy amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Inter-Agency Task Force in the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) started to implement its latest quarantine strategy called as “circuit-breaker” in a bid to gradually re-open the economy amid the resurgence of COVID-19 in the National Capital Region (NCR), Laguna, Bulacan and Cavite. These four areas are collectively called “NCR-Plus Bubble.”

Speaking in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday, Yap expressed support to the IATF’s “circuit-breaker” strategy now applied in the NCR-Plus Bubble. About a month ago, Yap noted, the entire province of Bohol saw a small number of 70 active cases. But when the NCR, Cebu, and other major population centers started registering surge of COVID cases, the Governor revealed, their province likewise experienced an increasing trend.

Since last year, Bohol recorded at least 1,773 COVID-19 cases with 27 deaths all over the island-province. Meanwhile, 1,282 or 72.30% of the patients have recovered from the virus.

“We saw the correlation between increasing cases at NCR and in other population centers. So we support whatever programs that the NCR would put in place to break this,” Yap pointed out. “You have to break this surge…because it affects us. Unless we can break the surge, we have to accept the fact that as an archipelago, there is a great correlation and interconnection with the infection rates all over the country,” he conceded.

This was why, Yap explained, he reversed a previous local ordinance that allows the COVID testing done upon arrival in Bohol as a come-on for people to travel and go on a tour around their province. Because of the surge, Gov.Yap disclosed, he issued an Executive Order that adopted the national government’s single testing platform. “If you want to come to Bohol, you must have negative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test which has been valid 72 hours before arrival in Bohol,” Yap announced.

In order to make it still attractive to go to Bohol, Yap reassured the public, holders of these negative PCR tests would no longer be required to undergo quarantine during their stay in the province.

“What we’re trying to do in the provinces, we’re trying to minimize infection, we‘d like to contain the infection…we’d like to keep them outside our provinces because our provinces have limited capacities and capabilities to address infections because of our limited budgets and limited medical facilities,” he explained.

With five seaports and two airports – the other is the old Tagbilaran Airport, Yap cited, the island province Bohol is best situated to control the ingress and egress of people and effectively control carriers of COVID-19 infection. This is why, Yap vows to revive the local economy of Bohol through “travel bubbles” that the Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat who first tried to roll it out last year.

Now the local government chief executive of their province, Yap drew strength from his experience and expertise as one of the economic technocrats of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the latter’s erstwhile Agriculture Secretary. It was during that time he worked with Romulo-Puyat who was then one of his undersecretaries at the Department of Agriculture.

And as former Bohol Representative, Yap also counts a lot of support from his former colleagues in Congress like then Makati Congressman and now Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. At the Senate, Yap especially mentioned the help being given to Bohol by Senator Christopher “Bong” Go who like Yap are of Filipino-Chinese descent.

“Give us the opportunity to explore bilateral air arrangements with the help of the national government, with the DOT and DFA,” Yap pleaded. The challenge, however, Yap admitted is how to convince other countries to visit tourist destinations in Bohol given the surge in COVID-19 cases in the country, especially in the NCR.

“Bohol is not the Philippines. Bohol is not the NCR,” Gov. Yap pointed out.

Yap believes the country’s tourism industry could “churn the Philippine economy” back to the growth track. Yap likened “tourism bubble in Bohol to a low hanging fruit” to best describe it would not take a lot of effort to do so, literally like picking fruit off a tree. His immediate targets, is to attract big tourists spenders among scuba divers from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and even from China.

For now, Yap has written off the usual travel peak in Bohol every Holy Week due to the NCR lockdown anew.


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