DOMESTIC tourism is seen picking up once more, with residents in the National Capital Region (NCR) again allowed to travel to leisure destinations in the country.
For instance, on Boracay Island, famous the world over for its fine white-sandy beach, visitor arrivals rebounded to 6,702 in September, compared to just 24 in August, according to the Department of Tourism (DOT). NCR, the main source of domestic visitors for many tourism destinations, went into another lockdown on August 6, as the Delta variant of Covid-19 wreaked havoc in the metropolis. But under government’s new Covid Alert Level System, which went into effect on September 16, tourists between 18 and 65 years old are now allowed to travel, point-to-point, to any leisure destination, subject to the local government’s entry requirements.
Barring any new travel restrictions, Philippine Tour Operators Association president Cesar Cruz expresses optimism, “Before the end of the year…we [tourism] can already take off.” He observes domestic tourists have already “embraced the challenge” of paying for RT-PCR tests, which increases their travel costs, or getting their QR codes from local government websites.
Vaccination is the key
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat believes vaccination will be the key in helping put the travel industry back on the road to recovery, as she continues to push for more tourism workers to get their jabs.
As of September 16, 2021, NCR registered the most number of vaccinated tourism workers at 94 percent, followed by the Davao Region at 88 percent, and the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) at 80 percent. The DOT is targeting some 74,000 tourism workers from Boracay, Bohol, Palawan, Siargao and Pampanga for vaccination.
For specific leisure destinations, Romulo Puyat says 100 percent of Boracay’s tourism workers should already have been vaccinated before the end of September. Baguio’s tourism frontliners are already 100-percent vaccinated. “I hope before Christmas, tourism workers in the country will be 100-percent vaccinated,” she stresses.
The DOT is trying to pattern its strategy after the Phuket Sandbox model, where 70 percent of the island’s residents have already been vaccinated, prior to reopening to foreign tourists. “We are closely watching Phuket, and their sandbox approach [to reopening to international tourism],” says the DOT chief.
Under the sandbox scheme, vaccinated tourists have been allowed to enter Phuket, but initially had to “quarantine” for 14 days before being allowed to travel to other destinations in Thailand. The quarantine has since been cut to seven days, with the Thai government now allowing tourists from any country to visit. The Bangkok Post reported only 95 Covid cases directly traced to the sandbox scheme as of September 17. The island has recorded some 30,000 foreign tourists since it reopened on July 1.
Veteran tour operator Jose C. Clemente III supports the efforts of the DOT to reopen tourism, especially with regard to vaccinating tourism frontliners. But he underscores, “It has to be 70 percent of the [destination’s] residents, not just tourism workers, that have to be fully vaccinated before being reopened to foreign tourists.”
Also president of the Tourism Congress of the Philippines, Clemente adds, “There is still a need to exercise extreme caution as the virus is still with us. And medical experts believe fully vaccinated persons can still act as [Covid] carriers.”
Lift age restrictions,
The immediate priority of the DOT is to have age restrictions lifted for Metro Manila residents traveling for leisure. “You know that Filipinos like traveling as a family. So it’s unfortunate if you have to leave your lola or your baby behind,” says Romulo Puyat.
She is also firm on cutting or eventually lifting the quarantine period for vaccinated foreign tourists, thus the rush to inoculate the country’s tourism workers. “As long as we are accepting fully vaccinated [guests], then we should reduce quarantine days.”
For now, only returning Filipinos, balikbayans, foreigners with valid and existing visas are allowed to enter the Philippines, unless they come from nations that are on a red list or banned country. Only Filipinos returning on government-approved repatriation flights are allowed entry if they come from a red-list country, but have to quarantine for 14 days at a government-approved facility.
Vaccinated persons arriving from countries on the so-called green list undergo a seven-day quarantine, while people coming from yellow-list countries—regardless of vaccination status—undergo a quarantine period for 10 days.
The DOT chief’s good intentions aside, however, she is still faced with formidable opposition. “In every IATF meeting, I constantly bat for the lifting of more travel restrictions to help tourism stakeholders regain their footing. But we always have to defer to the health experts, to the DOH [Department of Health].”
Also, not every leisure destination is ready to receive visitors, even as vaccination of their residents has already begun. At present, popular leisure destinations that are accepting visitors are Baler, Bacolod City, Bohol, Boracay, Cebu City, Dumaguete, Legazpi City, Palawan (Coron, El Nido, San Vicente), Clark Freeport in Pampanga, Puerto Galera, Subic Bay Freeport in Zambales, Zamboanga City, to name a few. (Check Guide to the Philippines for entry requirements.)
New products, uniform travel protocols
Under its revised National Tourism Development Plan for 2021-2022, the DOT has drawn up new strategies and new directions to help the industry rebound.
“While we continue to sustain our engagements in our key, strategic and opportunity markets, the department is also preparing and recalibrating its tourism products, adapting them to new market preferences in the post-pandemic era, where more sustainable, greener and immersive tourism experiences are expected to be in high demand,” says Romulo Puyat.
The DOT will also “develop and/or improve the tour quality and experience in the priority tourism circuits that match market preferences for safe travels in open spaces/outdoors, nature-based, curated, sensorial and inclusive products.”
The DOT also wants to speed up safe and green travel infrastructure and facilitation initiatives, such as “[improving] access and destination management infrastructure in the areas of sanitation, engineered landfill, health-care facilities and emergency response system, among others.”
Among these green initiatives are “uniform safe travel protocols to facilitate domestic mobility and conduct rapid assessment on readiness for international initiatives.” These include online visa application, adoption of the International Air Transport Association’s Travel Pass, and an “immunity/green/safe passport.”
The agency will develop “Green Corridors” as a strategy to reopen borders utilizing more gateway airports like Clark, Cebu, Davao, Bohol, Puerto Princesa, among others, for direct flights.
Perhaps a litmus test of sorts for the industry is the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit, which the Philippines is hosting in March 2022. Albeit to be held under hybrid conditions, the summit is expected to attract some 800 private sector leaders and tourism government officials, along with representatives of travel and trade companies and the international hospitality sector, while over 30,000 delegates are seen participating online.
The event will give the DOT the chance to show off the country’s breathtaking tourist destinations, and allow local tourism stakeholders to listen to inspirational speakers on many pertinent global topics, as well as hobnob and share their views and insights with the world’s travel giants.
And as the tourism industry tries to reboot, the DOT is constantly reminding our foreign friends that “More Fun Awaits” them in the Philippines. The agency’s new brand campaign has an ad airing on CNN International, the BBC, CNBC, National Geographic, and the History Channel. (Last year, it started with the “Wake up in the Philippines” campaign.)
Under the most optimum conditions and best-case scenarios, the DOT is targeting foreign tourists to reach as high as 5 million and domestic tourists at 100 million in 2022.
For the 4.8 million tourism workers affected by the Covid losses, travel and tourism leaders are crossing their fingers these shall come to pass.
Images courtesy of Viacheslav Dubrovin | Dreamstime.com, Benjamin Remhof | Dreamstime.com and Bernard Testa