Hotels turn to quarantine business to survive the coronavirus pandemic

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Many hotels have been turned into quarantine facilities for returning migrant Filipinos to stay afloat amid the pandemic. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MIGUEL DE GUZMAN

By Zsarlene B. Chua, Senior Reporter

ARTHUR D. GINDAP, who’s been in the hotel business for almost four decades, reckons 2020 as the worst year of his career.

“I have been working in this industry for more than 35 years and this is my worst year,” he said in a Google Meet interview.

A number of the country’s hotels have been turned into quarantine facilities for returning migrant Filipinos to stay afloat amid a coronavirus pandemic that has sickened more than 360,000 and killed almost 7,000 people in the Philippines.

BW Bullseye 2020-focusRobinsons Hotels and Resorts, where Mr. Gindap is senior vice-president, had planned to start seven property projects between this year and 2021.

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The projects are now down to four due to limited manpower and restricted mobility as the country continues to battle the pandemic, said the seasoned hotelier, whose career spanned three financial crises and the Sept. 11 bombings in 2001.

“This is a nightmare,” Margie Munsayac, vice-president for sales at Bluewater Resorts, said in a Google Meet interview in August.

“By February, we were feeling the pinch already,” she said via Google Meet. “We had numerous cancellations from China from those celebrating the Chinese New Year because Wuhan City was already in lockdown,” she added, referring to the virus epicenter in China.

Chroma Hospitality was well on its way to open its first dive resort before the Philippines was locked down in mid-March to contain the pandemic.

“We had a lot of plans,” Carmela Bocanegra, vice-president for sales and marketing at the hospitality arm of Filinvest Development Corp., said in an online interview. “We were supposed to open Timberland Resort in Rizal and then in Dumaguete, what was going to be our first dive resort in the third or fourth quarter of 2020.”

The pandemic, which has sickened 40 million and killed 1.1 million people worldwide, has halted industries including tourism, as countries restricted travel to contain the pandemic.

Fitch expects the economy to shrink by 8% this year as the Philippine economy went into a recession after output shrank by more than 16%. Economic managers expect the economy to shrink by around 6% this year.

A record 8.9 million foreign tourists visited the Philippines last year, and 1.5 billion people traveled internationally. The United Nations (UN) World Tourism Organization in January said “international tourism continues to outpace the global economy” after the sector grew 4%.

This year was supposed to be better as Japan was gearing up for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics in August. No one foresaw that just a few months after the UN forecast, the world would grind to a halt because of the pandemic.

Philippine international tourist arrivals fell by almost three quarters from a year earlier in the seven months through July to 1.3 million, according to data from the Tourism department.

Discovery World Corp., which operates Club Paradise resort in El Nido, Palawan province, was supposed to add more rooms by opening another resort in the area.

“We saw 2019 as a very rewarding year,” Claire Bernabe, director for sales and marketing, said in a Google Meet interview. “It was a hallmark year for the resorts.”

‘SURVIVAL MODE’
Discovery Hospitality also has hotels in the cities of Pasig and Makati near Manila, the capital, and resorts in Boracay and Palawan. Then the pandemic happened and all plans had to be delayed.

By mid-March, the Philippines had entered into a lockdown, one considered by many as one of the longest in the world. The quarantine measures have since been eased, but many parts of the country remained under a more relaxed lockdown including the National Capital Region.

Pandemics, epidemics and infectious diseases have long challenged humanity, greatly outstripping wars, accidents and chronic diseases as a cause of death, according to the Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics and Plagues.

While infectious diseases have changed in the modern era as vaccines became available, the world still faces unpredictable diseases such as SARS, H5N1 avian flu and HIV/AIDS.

Ms. Munsayac said Bluewater Resorts had to enter “survival mode,” which meant putting plans on hold and turning themselves into quarantine hotels for returning migrant Filipinos.

“Back in March when we went into lockdown, Robinsons was one of the first to take this quarantine business,” Mr. Gindap said, noting that the company had to continually provide jobs.

“Ninety percent of the business then was quarantine-related,” he said. “We had to take it otherwise we’ll close.”

Robinsons Hotels operates the affordable Go Hotel brand and the three-star Summit Hotels brand aside from other hotel properties such as Dusit Thani hotel in Cebu.

The Golden Phoenix hotel in Pasay City also became a quarantine hotel at the height of the Luzon-wide lockdown, allowing it to survive the crisis.

“A little profit is better than no profit at all,” Christine Urbanozo-Ibarreta, group director for marketing and sales of Golden Phoenix, said in a Google Meet interview on Sept. 29.

Chroma Hospitality’s Quest hotel in Tagaytay also became a quarantine hotel.

There were more than 300 local hotels that could be used as quarantine facilities, the Bureau of Quarantine said on its website in August.

Hotels also catered to business process outsourcing workers who needed to be nearer their companies because of the lack of public transportation during the lockdown.

Crimson Manila hotel in Muntinlupa City catered to long-stay outsourcing employees and other corporate employees, while Robinsons converted some of its rooms into private office spaces and long-term accommodations.

Ms. Munsayac noted that the pandemic had taught them how to be agile and “roll with the punches.” The industry was forced to enforce the digital road maps that it had been postponing “because we have no choice,” she added.

Health and safety guidelines require hotels to offer digital check-ins and contactless services.

“The pandemic showed off the resilience of hoteliers and how fast they could adapt to the changes,” Ms. Ibarreta said.

“I would like to think the worst is over,” Mr. Gindap said, citing government claims that infections have flattened starting in September.

Flattening the curve is a public health strategy to slow the rate of infection to allow healthcare services function better and more efficiently. The seven-day moving average of daily COVID-19 infections in the Philippines was at 2,477 on Oct. 1, down from a high of more than 4,000 in August, according to the Worldometers website.

While the worst may be over, recovery may be a long way still. Some have expressed that the coming holidays will give the tourism industry its much needed firestarter.

On Oct. 1, the Tourism department allowed Baguio and Boracay to resume tourism activities, but with limitations and requirements, including visitors getting COVID-19 swab tests. The agency also allowed city hotels to resume so-called staycations, again with conditions.

“I think it will take a little time to take off,” Mr. Gindap said, noting that people might be waiting for a vaccine before traveling again. “Even if we have a vaccine available early next year, it would still take several months for people to get vaccinated.”

Ms. Ibarreta said Golden Phoenix has opted to remain as a quarantine hotel instead of applying to transition into a staycation hotel. “We’re okay for the meantime with that market.”

Returning migrant Filipinos seem to be more sustainable income providers than people vacationing at hotels, Ms. Munsayac said. “With staycations, you take a calculated risk.”

Guests under quarantine stay longer than vacationers, who usually stay only for a night. Guidelines allow quarantine guests to stay for three days and two nights while they wait for the results of their coronavirus tests.

The hoteliers agree that the recovery won’t be swift, and a gradual but safe recovery is better for the industry and people as a whole.

“Traveling will not be lost forever,” Ms. Bocanegra said. “People will still travel, it’s just a matter of time.”

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