By Luz Wendy T. Noble, Reporter
WHEN the border closures were announced, Krysten Mariann Boado was in Kyrgyzstan, two years and 15 countries into her goal of traveling across half the planet.
Up to that point, Ms. Boado had been stuck in the country for eight months, well beyond her original plan of visiting friends briefly, which had been prolonged unexpectedly by ovarian surgery.
With the intention of avoiding visa complications that might derail her plans to travel elsewhere, she faced a mad dash to the Kazakhstan border.
Which was closing in 24 hours.
Her only mode of transport? Hitchhiking.
“This was one uncertainty that I couldn’t prepare for… I could have been be a carrier (of the coronavirus),” Ms. Boado said in a Zoom interview, expressing her dread at having to cut the journey short and head home.
While Ms. Boado’s case is extreme, stories of tourist strandings during the pandemic and desperate attempts to find “sweeper flights” back home have become a staple of traveler horror stories, which are adding an unwanted layer of fear to the already-worrying prospect of crossing an international border, with all that entails — including being turned back or detained in quarantine.
OBSTACLES TO REVIVAL
With tourism hanging by a thread, the Philippines is grappling for a way to resuscitate the visitor trade, and has had to contend with local governments playing by their own rules.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, in a text message, said: “Local government units (LGUs) are not yet keen on opening their destinations because they are still preparing and implementing the safety protocols and measures for the welfare of both tourists and citizens.”
While the snags are worked out, tourism businesses are waiting for the visitors to return. Some have proved unable to wait any longer.
Maria Monina Atienza-Santos, a Siargao spa operator, had to let go of her staff after a long closure dictated by the lockdown.
“After I gave them financial assistance, I told them to wait until the situation improves,” she said in a Facebook message, adding that she still needs to pay rent despite the closures.
Ms. Santos also operates a cafe, which remains closed, and a laundry, which has reopened.
“Stranded tourists are not much inclined to use laundry service. We have had between two and five clients compared with 20 on a normal day. Residents have used the service much less since the crisis,” she said in Filipino.
Ms. Santos said she has yet to receive aid from the Department of Tourism or the LGU. At the top of her wish list right now is a 50% rent discount.
“We are in danger of losing everything that we worked for… Rather than accumulate debt, we might have to let go of the business,” she said.
IN LINE FOR AID
Tourism, one of the hardest-hit industries worldwide alongside restaurants and airlines, is currently front and center for governments considering massive stimulus packages.
So far, the industry has been aided only indirectly in the form of wage subsidies for all small firms, according to Tourism Congress of the Philippines President Jose C. Clemente III.
In Manila’s walled city, some other workers who depend on the visitor trade have also received relief measures, according to Intramuros Administrator Guiller B. Asido.
“We assisted 190 people (pedicab drivers/vendors/tour guides) through our endorsements to DoLE (the Department of Labor and Employment) and NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts) since March,” Mr. Asido said in an e-mail.
In addition, Mr. Asido said the Intramuros Administration has also been working with government agencies and non-government organizations find alternative sources of income while visitor restrictions are in place.
WAITING FOR VISITORS TO RETURN
But relief measures are no substitute for the return of actual visitors and free-spending, adventurous locals.
The Department of Tourism (DoT) estimates first-quarter tourism revenue at P85 billion, down 25% from a year earlier, with the second quarter, during which most of the hard lockdown on Luzon took place, expected to be even worse.
“Second quarter figures will be worse as they will reflect at least 1.5 months of the Luzon-wide lockdown, with other stay-at-home policies in other provinces and regions. International and domestic tourism has been halted totally,” Asian Institute of Management (AIM) economist John Paolo R. Rivera said in an e-mail.
Mr. Clemente, who is also president of travel agency Rajah Tours Philippines, Inc. said beyond wage subsidies, the travel industry is hoping for the passage of laws that will stimulate actual business recovery.
“We are waiting for the passage of Bayanihan 2 and ARISE (Accelerated Recovery and Investments Stimulus for the Economy) bills for fiscal measures meant to ensure business continuity,” Mr. Clemente said.
Bayanihan 2, the sequel to the initial aid package known as the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, allocates P10 billion for the tourism industry while ARISE sets aside P58 billion for the sector.
Mr. Clemente said the industry has also asked for tax breaks to help it recover from the lockdowns.
“Most stakeholders are MSMEs (micro-, small, and medium-sized enterprises) so one can imagine the financial burdens at the moment,” he said.
His realistic scenario for a tourism industry bounce-back timeline is 12 to 18 months with a vaccine, and 18-24 months without one.
For outbound travelers, the main issue is how to stay safe — and destinations must figure out how to strike a balance between safety and convenience, though safety currently has the upper hand.
“The number one concern for tourists when traveling in a post-lockdown world would be safety. They believe that stringent health measures are an indication that a country or destination is safe, which will in turn build their confidence when traveling,” Ms. Romulo-Puyat said.
The DoT has released provisional accreditation guidelines for tourism-related enterprises including travel and tour services, transport services, operators of recreational activities connected to tourism, restaurants and shops, to ensure that they will follow safety protocols from the Department of Health.
DoT-accredited restaurants, for one, will only be allowed to operate with a 50% seating capacity in a “new normal” scenario, with their food safety practices, disinfection, and employee health monitored.
Mr. Clemente said such requirements will inevitably impose costs on businesses, and some might not be in a position to comply.
“Companies have to examine how viable their operations are and may need to make very hard decisions whether to continue or fold,” he said.
Mr. Clemente said the industry will have to be more flexible on cancellations, rebookings and refunds to stand out.
AIM’s Mr. Rivera said the new business environment will force the industry to be more agile in dealing with the stricter social distancing and sanitation requirements, but tourists may still stay away regardless of their efforts because travel is expected to become more expensive.
Ms. Romulo-Puyat said according to an industry survey, respondents planning to travel after the lockdown favor beach destinations, followed by road trips. She said the government’s plan is to get domestic tourists to explore nearby destinations to kick-start the industry in the early phases of reopening.
“We are seeing an increasing interest in farm tourism, hiking, and health and wellness. Travel trends are leaning towards private tours and exclusive island getaways, influenced by social distancing measures,” Ms. Romulo-Puyat said.
The focus on not-too-distant destinations, and the near-miss experience of surviving the pandemic, which will turn travelers’ thoughts towards sustainability, might mean some locations could be in more demand as well.
“One of the best models of sustainable tourism in the Philippines is Masungi Georeserve — they have a limit on the number of tourists they can accommodate, they do tree planting for tourists, and they patronize the community’s produce in the meals they prepare for tourists,” Mr. Rivera said.
Masungi Georeserve in Baras, Rizal, is in a conservation area along the Sierra Madre range and offers trail exploration for groups of up to 14 people.
Another emerging practice might be to limit visitors from countries or regions thought to be safe — the so-called “travel bubble” strategy.
Starting this month, the European Union will open its borders to leisure travelers from countries with low COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) infections, while Australia and New Zealand are making similar plans.
Ms. Romulo-Puyat said the DoT is exploring such bubbles or green corridors within ASEAN “as soon as travel restrictions are relaxed.” “It works for us better because we are an archipelagic nation with quite a number of small island destinations that are easy to manage and contain, such as Boracay, Palawan and Bohol,” she said.
Boracay opened itself to visitors from the Western Visayas starting June 16, after the island moved to a more relaxed form of quarantine on June 1.
THE VIRTUAL VISITOR EXPERIENCE
Ms. Romulo-Puyat said the DoT has also launched a digital campaign, “Wake Up in the Philippines,” which features 360-degree virtual tours of 16 regions, and cooking videos, in a bid to keep the Philippines “top-of-mind” among travelers while physical travel remains out of reach.
Intramuros has also launched a #TravelFromHome campaign featuring photos and artwork of private citizens, as well as online heritage forums.
“The goal is to educate the public about specific topics about Intramuros and the nation, allowing them to “travel” as if doing an actual tour in Intramuros, while they are in the comforts of their homes,” Mr. Asido said.