Getting beyond pre-pandemic

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

A big number of our senior and elderly members have resumed going to our weekly fellowship at the Tuesday Club (TC) breakfast coffee shop gathering. Considering they are among those considered with comorbidities, we welcomed back our senior citizens who are all fully jabbed and had booster shots of anti-COVID vaccines.

They shied away from attending our breakfast club after almost two years of restrictions on indoor gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Community quarantine protocols strictly imposed in the past by the government disallowed indoor group gatherings to prevent spread of the highly contagious virus. Thus, we resorted to Zoom Webinar meetings to keep us TC members connected. Though only virtually seeing each other, it has kept everyone in touch during those tough times of being restricted at homes for our elderlies.

It was only sometime in July last year that we were gradually allowed to return to our Tuesday Club venue at The Heat Restaurant in Edsa Shangrila Hotel in Ortigas Avenue in Mandaluyong City. This was because the Edsa Shangrila was also among the hotels that the government tapped as quarantine quarters for hundreds of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and other returning Filipinos and foreigners who travelled from abroad.

When the nationwide lockdown took effect on March 15, 2020, many of these hotels have been converted as designated quarantine facilities to help keep these establishments in business. Many of the Metro Manila hotels were turned into isolation facilities for people waiting the results of their RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) that detect COVID-19 infection.

In turn, the government paid these participating establishments from five-star hotels to rinky-dink motels in Quiapo in Manila. I should know because my seaman brother-in-law who returned from Middle East got billeted in one small Quiapo motel while isolated in quarantine. The government paid as much as P1.7 billion to these participating hotel establishments, according to Arthur Lopez, president of the Philippine Hotel Owners Association of the Philippines (PHOAP).

Lopez single-handedly worked for the payment of this amount the government owed to hotels, many of which were nearly running bankrupt due to the lockdown. Through the help of former Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, Lopez recalled, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration finally paid 20 or so hotels, mostly at P20 million before the presidential elections were held last year.

“I tried my best to see that the Government met its obligations,” Dominguez in a text message confirmed to me.

The funds were actually provided for under the so-called “stimulus” package of economic relief in the Congress-approved “We Recover As One” Law. Not all hotels were as lucky but were forced to close down their operations at the height of the pandemic. One of them is Marco Polo Hotel in Davao City that closed down eventually.

Incidentally, the family of Dominguez is part owner of Marco Polo. According to Dominguez, it is currently undergoing renovation and will re-open to business in about a year from now.

The hotels and travel industries could only heave a collective sigh of relief when the government has re-opened our country’s borders to foreign travels. Many of the previous very strict anti-COVID protocols from getting RT-PCR 24 hours before travel etc. have since then been relaxed.

All of which are aimed to bring about a travel binge, or so-called “revenge” travels by people worldwide.

Lopez, who is among our elders who rejoined us again at the Tuesday Club last week, was just too happy to tell us about the return to robust business of hotels and other travel and tourism-related establishments. Lopez sits at the Board of Bellevue Hotel in Alabang and in Bohol as well as the Waterfront Hotel and is a consultant in new hotel developments.

According to Lopez, hotels all over Metro Manila are now hitting 90 percent occupancy rate. More or less, he believes, the same high occupancy rate is being experienced in the hotels outside Metro Manila. This is especially more so in the more popular tourist destinations around the country.

This early, Lopez noted, it has become very difficult to book for function halls in many of the hotels given the sheer volume of events and social gatherings that are now taking place. The downside of the on-going boom in the hotel and travel industry, Lopez rued, is the growing shortage of lodging accommodations. “There is simply a shortage now of hotels here in Metro Manila,” he chortled.

This should not be a problem. Why not transform the many empty rooms of condotels that previously housed the hundreds of Chinese nationals who used to work at the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs)? These vacant condotels located along the Diosdado Macapagal Avenue in Pasay City as well as those in Paranaque City have become ghost towns after being shut down also following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s called re-purposing,” Albay Rep. Joey Salceda interjected. According to Salceda, about 70 percent of the estimated 1.2 million square meters of condominium living quarters built for POGO workers have been vacated when the pandemic hit the country. Fortunately, Salceda noted, these 70 percent have been pre-paid but still such comprise a huge part of economic losses due the pandemic.

Lo and behold. The Star reported yesterday the “re-entry” to the Philippines of the Westin Hotel & Resorts. According to their official announcement, the opening of the Westin Manila in Mandaluyong City is in partnership with Robinsons Land Corp. The 32-storey hotel features 303 rooms, including 57 suites. The Westin Manila is situated also in the Ortigas commercial district hosting other top corporate centers, shopping malls, dining and entertainment centers.

These kinds of business and industries are expected in getting us beyond the pre-pandemic levels of economic growth. But more hotel developments here, Lopez chirped, would mean more fun in the Philippines.


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