A jab for tourism in the new normal

MIKE ABOUT TOWN - Atty. Mike Toledo - The Philippine Star
A jab for tourism in the new normal
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat.

It is very well known that tourism is a major economic driver of the country.

In 2019 alone, tourism was able to generate P482.15 billion in visitor receipts, an increase of 18.80 percent from the previous year. Tourism also supported nearly 25 percent of all jobs in the country, either directly or otherwise.

The country had 8,260,913 visitor arrivals in 2019, an increase of 15.24 percent from the previous year. It was ready to meet a target of 9.2 million visitors in 2020 when the pandemic struck.

Foreign tourist arrivals and visitor receipts plunged by as much as 83 percent in 2020 due to strict border controls and COVID-19 protocols. Foreign tourists in the country were at 1.32 million, an 83.97 percent drop from 2019’s 8.26 million.

Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez.

Tourism receipts were estimated to be at P81.40 billion compared to 2019’s P482.15 billion.

Leisure travel to the Philippines was barred by the government as part of COVID-19 prevention measures, and only foreigners with official business, Filipino spouses or who were dual citizens were allowed to enter the country.

With such bleak numbers, the Department of Tourism, at the start of 2021, had yet to set its targets for the year. It will have to recalibrate its National Tourism Development Plan or NTDP to deal with this predicament.

In January 2021, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said that the NTDP for 2016-2022 would have to be aligned with the Tourism Response and Recovery Plan or TRRP to strengthen institutional and policy reforms, as well as assist tourist destinations in preparing for the new normal.

With restrictions to foreign travel for leisure still in place, a refocus to domestic tourism in the short term needed to be carried out.

Just recently, the Manila Overseas Press Club or MOPC, the oldest press club in the country, held its first-ever virtual forum with Romulo-Puyat as the guest of honor and speaker, and the state of the tourism industry post-pandemic was the topic for discussion.

MOPC president Eric Canoy.

Also in attendance, aside from the MOPC members and friends from media, were members of the diplomatic corps, like our very own Philippine Ambassador to the United States, Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez, who has been our champion in ensuring we get our fair share of much-needed vaccines.  What he has been doing is fodder for another column.

We were also joined by other government officials and friends from the tourism industry, particularly from the hotel and restaurant sector.

The welcome remarks were given by MOPC president Eric Canoy, president and chairman of Radio Mindanao Network (RMN) and the guest speaker was introduced by MOPC governor and chair of the virtual forum, Angela Carmela Javier Cruz, GMA Network vice-president for corporate affairs and communications.

Art Lopez, MOPC governor and president of the Philippine Hotel Owners Association or PHOA, did the yeoman’s job of hosting the online event, while I had the honor of moderating the open forum that followed Romulo-Puyat’s presentation as MOPC governor and vice president for external affairs.

Romulo-Puyat presented the 2021 plans of the Department of Tourism and of the country’s tourism industry. She mentioned that there was a need now to focus not just on rebuilding the tourism industry in light of the pandemic, but to make it stronger and more sustainable.

MOPC chairman Tony Lopez.

While vaccination programs around the world are currently underway, it might take a while for the international demand of travel to return to pre-pandemic levels. Knowing this, the Department of Tourism is following the path it mapped out last year while also quickly adapting to new challenges as they come along.

In the open forum, a question was raised by MOPC chairman and BizNews Asia magazine publisher, my good friend Tony Lopez, on how Philippine tourism prospects are — given the pandemic constraints, the economic slowdown, the financial difficulties of global carriers, and the “global negative perception of the country.”

A question asked by the PHOA was whether (fully) vaccinated persons would be allowed entry into the country without quarantine or additional tests, and on what the Tourism chief’s take was on a unified vaccine recognized throughout the country and even in the ASEAN region.

The PHOA, ably led by its forward-thinking president, Art Lopez, also asked how large hotels could secure loans from government banks, considering that the current financing is for MSMEs (where large hotels do not qualify).

Angel Javier-Cruz, GMA Network VP for corporate affairs and communications.

The hotels expressed concern that they may run into deep financial trouble unless there is a stimulus package or low-interest loans and fiscal incentives.

When can we see a return to pre-pandemic levels? That was the big question. And the good secretary, who is also known for her brilliance as well as her candor, gave the honest answer that it was quite difficult to predict given the volatility of the COVID-19 situation.

For now, Romulo-Puyat said, she is pushing for the establishment of “green lanes” for fully vaccinated individuals as a bid to reboot tourism in the country.

“Green lanes” would mean less quarantine days for tourists and especially returning Filipinos. People in key tourist destinations must also be fully vaccinated so that they, too, can accept fully vaccinated tourists.

MOPC board of governor Art Lopez.

A monumental task ahead of her, no doubt, but having known Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat as a no-nonsense, hands-on, and determined government official and public servant, I trust the tourism industry will get its much-needed jab in the new normal at the soonest possible time.

The author.
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