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Shifts among tourists, travel spots expected to stick  

A glimpse of Philippine tourism as it reopens in the new normal

Zoe Ticzon, an associate account manager based in the United States, was one of those tourists who got to experience Philippine tourism in the new normal. She spent a portion of her holidays in Boracay, which reopened last October, and she found it worthwhile in spite of the tedious process.

Before going to the island, she had to get an RT-PCR test strictly 72 hours before her flight, then send its results, together with booking and flight details, to the Boracay local government unit to avail of the QR code that she would use during her stay.

“Although it was a hassle, getting to Boracay was one of the best vacations I had in a while. It felt like you have the whole island to yourself,” Ms. Ticzon told BusinessWorld via online correspondence, adding that she saw how hard it was seeing locals struggle to earn money.

She also saw how travelling in the new normal takes more money, time, and effort. “Before, all we are waiting for was a flight sale announcement, then we’re set to venture. But now, we have to take all of these steps in order to actually board a plane and leave. Also take into consideration the expensive testing with a possibility of efforts going to waste if you’re tested positive.”

This is just a glimpse of how tourism has transformed after the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic took a hard hit on the sector.

Latest figures from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) show that globally, the pandemic caused an estimated 142 million loss in travel and tourism jobs as well as $3.8 trillion lost in the sector’s gross domestic product.

In addition, as Oxford Business Group noted in its Philippines 2021 report, visitor numbers decreased by 62.2% in the first five months of the year compared to the same period in 2019.

Yet, as the tourism industry sees bright spots, with destinations such as Boracay, El Nido, Siargao, and Baguio reopening, it expects the way people travel to be reshaped, along with shifts among tourism businesses.

Prioritizing health and safety 

As experts in the industry see it, the new normal in tourism largely concerns keeping guests safe.

During last November’s BusinessWorld Virtual Economic Forum, Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, Secretary of the Department of Tourism (DoT), noted a survey it conducted with Asian Institute of Management which revealed that 77% of respondents expressed willingness to travel even in the absence of a vaccine, yet 96% said they would like to see the stringent application of health standards and disinfecting protocols in tourist destinations.

“Tourists now have their health and safety as their priority in their travel. In the new normal, the strict implementation of the minimum health and safety guidelines will boost the confidence of tourists. Likewise, it impacts the willingness of destinations to accept guests,” Ms. Puyat said.

Likwise, Tiffany Misrahi, vice-president for policy at the WTTC sees safety and security remaining a high priority among travellers as they look for more flexibility in booking.

“Travellers will want to know that health and hygiene measures are in place and are being followed, and this is particularly important for baby boomers who are keen to see more stringent travel safety protocols,” Ms. Misrahi said in the same forum, adding that cost will be a big factor as well even for those who have been less cost-conscious.

Given this prime on safety, which eventually leads to looking for low-contact experiences, a shift to using more automated processes and biometrics is much expected within the industry and among tourists.

Ensuring safety, however, might be a difficulty, especially if the cost of testing is considered. “Testing is still expensive especially for majority of Filipinos. Most Pinoys would rather spend money on groceries than testing. As long as the options for testing are still expensive, it will be harder for tourism to bounce back,” Ms. Ticzon opined.

Shifts among tourists, businesses

Ms. Misrahi also observed that travellers will be looking for “longer and more meaningful journeys”, citing the organization’s finding that average lengths of stay for short-term accommodation has increased from 3.5-5 days to 8.5-9 days.

Moreover, she stressed that there will be an increased focus on sustainability in the industry, as exemplified by the six-month rehabilitation of Boracay back in 2018.

The WTTC official also expects a higher demand for “off-the-beaten-path, nature, and outdoor destinations, as well as more remote and lesser known destinations”. “That’s a great opportunity for a lot of countries and governments to spread the benefits of travel and tourism beyond traditional hotspots,” Ms. Misrahi added. 

Other potential features of new normal tourism were noted by Alexander B. Cabrera, chairman and senior partner of PriceWaterhouseCoopers Philippines.

For him, encouraging travellers to come back through promotions, preferably tourist vouchers, is much better in revitalizing the industry than giving businesses more loans to keep their businesses afloat. 

“[I]f you fund tourism establishments and they have no customers, the money will be a sum cost, but if you fund tourists, that will not be their last purchase in that establishment,” Mr. Cabrera said.

He also suggests a transformation taking place in hotel rooms, which can be converted into function rooms where professionals can “break the monotony of working from home”; as well as in kitchens of hotels and resorts becoming what is called ‘cloud kitchens’.

“It’s like an Airbnb where kitchens of hotels can service restaurant chains who have closed down their other locations,” Mr. Cabrera explained. “So, they don’t need to have capital expenditures for these kitchens; and the hotels — with [their] excess capacity, can provide that service.”

Moreover, given the 7,100 islands in the country, he sees an opportunity in maximizing the use of seaplanes.

“You can travel from Boracay to… the bay of Romblon, or from Tagbilaran Bay in Bohol to [the] port [in] Siquijor,” Mr. Cabrera said. “Seaplanes provide tourists the ability to go around quickly and even cheaply because you can do all these things.”