By Arjay L. Balinbin
JENNY, a 31-year-old Filipina who works as a cook in South Korea, canceled a plan to visit relatives in Cotabato City this summer amid a coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak that has killed more than a thousand people and sickened tens of thousands more in China.
“I have to be confined at the Seoul National University Hospital for two weeks when I return to ensure I don’t have the virus,” she said via Facebook Messenger chat. “I don’t want to go through that hassle.”
Tourists not just from China and its administrative regions, but from all over the world have canceled their trips to the Philippines because of the virus scare, according to Jose C. Clemente III, president of the association of local travel agencies.
About 10% of his company’s two million bookings outside China as of Feb. 3 had been scrapped, he said by telephone.
Still, he thinks it could have been worse. “Cancellations from other markets, especially the Western markets have not been as much as we had anticipated,” said Mr. Clemente, who is also president of Rajah Tours Philippines, Inc.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Fatima T. Romulo-Puyat has said the industry could lose P42.9 billion from February to April — P16.8 billion this month, P14.11 billion in March and P11.98 billion in April.
Roberto Lim, executive director and vice-chairman of the Air Carriers Association of the Philippines, Inc. (ACAP) said they expect to lose about P3 billion from ticket refunds in the next two months after the Philippine travel ban on China and its administrative regions.
The Philippines has three confirmed cases of COVID-19, including one death, all involving Chinese nationals. More than 400 people have been checked for infection, more than half of whom had been confined, according to health authorities.
The government wants Filipinos to visit local spots in the face of an international tourism decline because of the outbreak.
No less than President Rodrigo R. Duterte is joining the domestic travel campaign by visiting Boracay, Cebu, and Bohol.
Travel operators are trying to entice the market with lower rates for local destinations, while hotels and restaurants have cut rates by up to 50%, according to the Tourism department. Airlines will also offer lower fares.
The Tourism Congress of the Philippines (TCP) said as much as 40% of Boracay flights were canceled since the Philippine travel ban on China, Macau, and Hong Kong was imposed early this month.
Marites Lopez, a 32-year-old entrepreneur from Sultan Kudarat who accepts online travel bookings through the Unified app, said she had only one client this year — a Filipino worker from Saudi Arabia.
Travel inquiries from Singapore and Taiwan did not materialize, she said via Facebook Messenger chat.
“It’s very difficult because the situation is very alarming especially with talks that the new coronavirus is airborne,” she said. “I have lost a lot of sales because of that.”
The Health department has said there is no evidence yet that the virus could be transmitted through the air, citing the World Health Organization.
Mr. Clemente said the industry should find ways to attract foreign visitors amid the coronavirus scare.
“We will definitely continue marketing to our tourism markets and we will do our best to offer more palatable rates,” he said.
“We will continue imposing the guidelines and other health procedures imposed by the Department of Health, Department of Transportation and all other agencies,” he added.
Foreign arrivals reached 7.4 million in the 11 months to November last year, 15% higher than a year earlier, according to data from the Tourism department.
The agency said last month it targets to attract 9.2 million international visitor arrivals this year.
“We may have to revisit that figure, depending on how long this situation persists,” Mr. Clemente said.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Alexei B. Nograles cited the need for a “catch-up plan” to meet tourism targets instead of revising these now. “It’s too early to reassess the situation. Reassessment will probably happen after the second quarter.”
Aside from Western tourists staying away from Asian destinations including the Philippines, some local travelers have also canceled their trips overseas.
“Filipinos planning to travel abroad have expressed concerns about their travel plans and some of them have already cancelled or rebooked their flights,” Charo Logarta-Lagamon, a spokesperson for budget carrier Cebu Pacific, said by telephone.
“We are hoping that we could damp down the effects of the coronavirus outbreak,” Mr. Clemente said. “We hope a vaccine will be found soon.”
Lauren Glover, a British English teacher in her late 30s who plans to visit the Philippines, is keeping an eye on the situation in the country.
“If the Philippines gets more confirmed cases, I will definitely not be going there anytime soon,” she said in a chat message.