Home Special Reports The ‘workcation’ provides a lifeline to tourist destinations

The ‘workcation’ provides a lifeline to tourist destinations

By Jenina P. Ibañez, Reporter

THERE’S not much for tourism businesses to do but wait. After global travel stopped in March 2020, many shuttered completely — except for hotels offering quarantine rooms and serving the occasional demand for “workcations.”

Although recovery is not quite on the horizon yet, tourism businesses and analysts agree that the industry, when it restarts, will change. The industry must offer safer travel, which not only means an emphasis on sanitary practices, but also a move to outdoor, nature-based and disaster-resilient travel.

“We have still so many other places that we can develop and offer as new destinations where we can diffuse the overcrowding in the established destinations,” Tourism Congress of the Philippines President Jose C. Clemente III said.

He said in a phone interview that this would mean more locations, along with more activities that would allow travelers to explore nature, food, or historical sites.

Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat in a mobile message said that travelers now prefer outdoor activities like going to the beach, hiking and biking. Eco-tourism sites, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries stand to benefit.

Such a shift could require investment in infrastructure in sites outside the established destinations. And it could mean moving away from mass tourism, or large concentrations of travelers in limited areas. Some are still holding out hope that tourism will go back to how it used to be.

The tourism industry in 2019 was on the rise, accounting for 12.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). When the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic hit last year, tourism revenue plummeted 83% to P81.4 billion after the number of foreign visitors fell.

This means the sector’s direct gross value added accounted for just 5.4% of GDP last year — the lowest in at least two decades, according to preliminary data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), dating back to 2000 when the indicator was first compiled.

The Department of Tourism (DoT) could further reduce its projections for inbound tourist arrivals and receipts as pandemic-related uncertainties persist.

For now, tourism businesses — including travel agencies, tour guides, and event venues — are trying to survive until it is safe for travel to restart. Many are not operating.

“There really hasn’t been anything to adapt to. We’re still not in the post-pandemic scene. In the meantime, business essentially stopped for most of us,” Mr. Clemente said.

Smaller businesses are buoyed by lower overhead, he said, while larger companies are at a standstill and have had to temporarily lay off workers.

Government loans set aside for the industry have seen few takers while firms are still uncertain about their ability to pay them, although Mr. Clemente said such companies could use the loans to set up side businesses like food distribution as a way to survive.

Accommodation businesses have been able to pull through by chasing the “workcation” market, attracting people that want to do their remote work at tourist sites while lockdowns are declared in the major cities.

“Resorts are more flexible with the rates they’re giving out for workcations. Maybe they’re allotting more resources for that,” Mr. Clemente said.

One such company is Discovery World Corp., which runs luxury beach resorts and plans to integrate workspaces into its developments.

“We’re hopeful that as corporates come back to work, not everyone may go back to the 9-5, Monday to Friday work schedule and they may allow some flexible work to be done off site. And as a result of that, there would be more travelers who would be willing to work from resorts,” Discovery World Chief Executive Officer John Y. Tiu, Jr. said in an online video interview.

The Asian Institute of Management (AIM) Dr. Andrew L. Tan Center for Tourism expects the industry to keep plugging away with this approach, noting that Filipinos now view travel as a means to ease cabin fever and maintain good mental health.

“The ‘workcation’ model will persist as more employees become engaged in work-from-home setups. Being stuck at home for a year and more, a lot of Filipinos still yearn for a new environment to work in or to stay in for a period of time, maiba lang (just for a change of scene) as we put it,” AIM Research Manager Eylla Laire M. Gutierrez said in an e-mail.

If given the chance to go back in time, tourism business owners wish they had managed resources differently.

“The first thing I would do is take a good look at our organization and see where the excess expenses are. How can we trim the fat? How we can be more efficient in how we do our day-to-day business para ’di nasasayang ’yung pera (in order not to waste money)… be more watchful over the cash flow that you have (because) a lot of us were caught flat footed,” Mr. Clemente said.

“You’re anticipating other business to come in to cover all the payments that you need to make. A lot of us were caught in that dilemma. Since nakalabas lahat ng pera, nung nagsara lahat (Since all the money had been committed when everything shut down), our savings were not really enough to meet obligations, not only to clients for refunds, to our suppliers for payments we needed to make, but (also for) basic things like utilities, rental.”

The tourism industry will be different because demand will be different. As travelers avoid crowded areas to steer away from public health risks, AIM’s Ms. Gutierrez said that less popular areas will have a chance to attract more interest.

“When we look at the future of tourism, the promotion of mass tourism will be considered passe. Tourist perceptions/behavior/attitudes have changed because of the pandemic,” she said.

Ideally, she added, the pandemic should be treated as a time to invest in and fix tourist infrastructure found problematic or insufficient.

“On top of the usual infrastructure development projects such as roads and bridges, investments in medical facilities at tourist destinations must be made as well. Again, the new normal model integrates the value of health and safety at its core,” she said.

As the industry looks to diffuse travel, Mr. Clemente said that the country can be a choice destination for travelers if there is funding for infrastructure development in places like Dumaguete, Aurora, and La Union.

Discovery World’s Mr. Tiu said the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) should be expanded to address gaps in sewer infrastructure at tourist destinations.

“Maybe they can consolidate all that permitting and zoning under a more professionally-run organization, rather than leaving it up to the LGUs (local government units) who… a lot of the time are also underfunded,” he said.

“Tourism just grew faster than expected in a lot of these areas, so it’s not the government’s fault. It’s a matter of speeding up the infrastructure and funding to the local areas.”

The Department of Tourism, according to Ms. Puyat, is preparing an infrastructure development plan for 2022 to 2028, which aims to improve destination management infrastructure, including sanitation, engineered landfill, healthcare facilities and emergency response systems.

The TIEZA, she said, is poised to “implement and oversee the construction of sustainable, resilient, and inclusive tourism-related infrastructure in our local destinations.”