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Opinion

Omicron: The spoiler alert

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

Had it not been due to the unexpected emergence of a newest mutation of the dreaded coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection, we would have been on the third day already in re-opening our country’s international gateways to foreign tourists. The Omicron outbreak stalled the originally set Dec. 1 to 15 test-run to reopen the Philippines as COVID-safe destination to foreign tourists.

Thanks, but no thanks to South African medical experts. They discovered Omicron, the latest Greek-named variant of COVID-19 infection. Subsequently, the South African government denounced the travel ban directed ironically against their country. The border gates of Israel, Japan and now the Philippines, too and elsewhere in the world have been closed down anew from travellers originating from South Africa and several other countries that have confirmed transmissions of Omicron.

Based from the decision of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID), our Department of Tourism (DOT) put on hold the implementation of more relaxed entry rules to non-visa foreign tourists coming to the Philippines to protect our own country from Omicron infestation.

No worries though, DOT Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat assuaged us in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday. The DOT Secretary clarified President Rodrigo Duterte approved only a “temporary suspension” of the test-run re-opening of the Philippines to foreign tourists coming from countries whether classified as green, yellow, or red list of the government.

The suspension came in the wake of the newly discovered Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus which reportedly has much more infectious than the Delta and other foreign variants that have spread through local transmissions also in the Philippines. Puyat, however, reiterated this was just a precautionary measure until the World Health Organization (WHO) comes up with a final evaluation of Omicron variant if it poses no grave threat to worsen the current pandemic.

The Philippine government led by the DOT were all set to reopen the country’s tourism industry to international travelers wherein fully-vaccinated people from “green list” and visa-free countries will only be required swab test, but no longer undergo official quarantine facility upon arrival here. “For now, the strategy of the IATF with respect to the Omicron variant is to tighten our border controls in order to prevent the entry of the variant of concern,” Puyat stressed.

This is why the IATF, she clarified, the stricter quarantine protocols for arriving passengers regardless of country of origin, vaccination status but swab testing before and after arrival and at least three-day stay in official quarantine facility will again be enforced. Puyat shared the IATF decision to adopt a wait-and-see stance and suspend the re-opening of the Philippines to foreign tourists until Dec. 15 while the Omicron variant is further studied.

As a matter of government policy, Romulo-Puyat underscored all the country’s 12 international gateways remain open to all returning Filipinos despite the Omicron threat. Whether they are overseas Filipino workers or as returning travellers from abroad, she cited, President Duterte declared the policy since the pandemic first struck us in January, 2019 to allow them to come home but must undergo IATF protocols.

Despite the latest IATF rules amid the Omicron scare, Tourism Congress of the Philippines (TCP) president Jose “Jojo” Clemente Jr. informed the DOT Secretary that thousands of Filipino balikbayans – mostly coming from North America and the Middle East – have not cancelled their pre-booked trips to spend the Christmas holidays here this month up to January. Joining us in the Kapihan sa Manila Bay zoom webinar, Clemente surmised this is probably because our country’s balikbayan are amenable with the three-day quarantine period that they will have to go through in their homecoming arrival.

“The balikbayans are expected to come home during this holiday season Omicron or not. As long as the quarantine period does not become longer again,” Clemente noted. He, however, hastened to add the advice for travelers to be just patient and strictly comply with health and safety procedures to avoid getting infected, or worse to spread COVID-19 here.

DOT record showed 109,488 balikbayans from the United States alone arrived and spent the Christmas season here in 2019 or before the COVID-19 pandemic. But in 2020, it drastically declined to only 19,793 arrivals.

This, however, does not dishearten the DOT Secretary. She highlighted the country’s domestic tourism industry remains the growth-driver of the Philippine economy during this pandemic period. The tourism sector generated 12.8% growth in the country’s gross domestic products (GDP). Of this growth, 10.8% was accounted for by local travellers, she cited.

To further keep the interest of Filipinos to travel around the country, the DOT introduced 40 “travel circuits” that offer new destinations, activities and products all around the Philippines under travel discount packages. These “travel circuits” will be increased to 70 more areas she promised, to cater to the demands for COVID-safe but not costly travel destination with the pandemic still lingers in the world.

“For now, more fun awaits,” the DOT chief enthused.

Puyat likens the emergence of Omicron variant as a “small hiccup” in IATF plans to fully reopen international tourism now that nearly half of our population has been vaccinated all over the country. More than 80 to 95% of tourism workers along with residents in major tourist destinations in the Philippines have all been vaccinated, the DOT Secretary proudly reported.

As the country’s tourism chief, she vows to ensure in keeping “More Fun in the Philippines” on top of the mind of world travellers that our country is most COVID-safe destination in this part of the world. After the spoiler alert Omicron variant, there is no more stopping the return of much fun awaits in the Philippines.

OMICRON VARIANT
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