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Trouble in paradise: Foreign tourists gone amid coronavirus outbreak

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Paddle board instructor Anthony Pampusa has not had a client in days as tourist arrivals in Boracay plunge amid the COVID-19 outbreak. -- JENINA P. IBAÑEZ

By Jenina P. Ibañez
Reporter

STAND UP paddle board instructors on a stretch of beach on the world-famous Boracay island have not had a client for three days.

Some of them including Jerry Arebalo, who moved to the island from Kalibo City seven years ago, have been collecting coconuts from the trees along the shore, stringing them together and tying them to an umbrella tree.

“Ma’am, coconut?” he calls to a tourist, hoping to come home with P50 instead of nothing. Mr. Arebalo said he used to earn P1,200 on a good day, but those days are gone.

Boracay’s tourists have been declining as governments across the globe imposed travel bans and people voluntarily canceled their trips amid a novel coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 7,000 people and sickened about 183,000 more worldwide, mostly in China.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte postponed his promotional visit to Boracay last week, staying in Metro Manila to announce a community quarantine limiting entry and exit from Manila, the capital and nearby cities.

He later expanded the lockdown to the entire Luzon island to contain the outbreak, suspending work and public transportation and regulating food and health services.

The President ordered a so-called enhanced community quarantine as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections rose to 202, killing at least 17.

Some provinces and cities outside Luzon have also closed their borders including Aklan province, where Boracay is.

The average daily port arrivals to the island were down to a thousand people since the start of March, from 5,600 last year, Tourism Undersecretary Arturo P. Boncato, Jr. said.

As the local tourism industry plummets, the reality of losing their jobs was just starting to sink in for Boracay island’s 30,000 workers.

“I’ve been trying to find some extra work here and there,” paddle board instructor Anthony Pampusa said in an interview.

The tourists on the island have been mostly street smart locals who know their way around, Mr. Arebalo said.

Most of the tourists in Boracay used to be Chinese and Korean, but that’s no longer true after the Philippines banned travel to and from mainland China and its administrative regions in February as COVID-19 cases in those regions rose.

South Korea has been aggressively testing citizens as cases topped 8,000 with at least 84 deaths.

Jojo Candas, who rents out paddle boards at Boracay’s Station 1, said he had lost about 90% of his clients. Rent per hour is P600, which is divided 60-40 between the owner and instructor, respectively “Before we regularly got six clients a day,” Mr. Candas said. “Now, we’d be lucky to have one.”

SLOW DEMAND
Meanwhile, Flora Ramon sits under a tree next to massage therapists and sunglass vendors watching for tourists passing by. Ms. Ramon, who braids hair as a profession, said she had not seen client numbers this low since Boracay was closed for rehabilitation in 2018.

But back then, the local government had helped workers who lost their jobs. “It would be nice to be offered jobs from the Labor department, as well as cash for work,” she said in Filipino.

Ms. Ramon has been braiding hair on Boracay’s beach front for two decades. “Before, it was easy to get customers. Now, I go home with nothing.”

Further into the island, behind Boracay’s beach-front hotels, Rosie Casimiro is worried about slow demand for cigarettes and soft drinks from the mom-and-pop store that she manages. She said she’s been buying fewer goods for resale as demand from tourists and locals dips.

“Most of my customers are workers from here,” Ms. Casimiro said. “What happens once they lose their jobs?”

Not too far from Ms. Casimiro’s store, Henann Prime Beach Resort General Manager Keevin Cepe sits at the lobby after helping tourists check in.

“We are affected by (COVID-19),” he said in an interview. “We’ve probably lost 60-70% of our occupancy.”

Most Boracay tourists who check in at hotels and resorts are from South Korea and China, he said, adding that European backpackers who stay for a month choose cheaper hostels.

Since February, resort employees have been asked to go on leave without pay for about a week each month. The company has also cut room rates by more than 60%.

Terence Ang, resident manager at Lime Hotel Boracay, said they have lost 90% of their guests, most of whom were from travel agencies bringing in Chinese and Korean tourists.

To manage losses, the hotel has asked the Labor department to let the company enforce days-off without pay. The hotel has also sought discounts from cable, water and internet providers.

The hotel had planned to add 200 more rooms to its existing 42 before the tourist slump. The plan would probably have to wait for now, he said.

Aaron Fabiano, a dive instructor at Milky’s Water Sports, said he was not worried because most of their clients are vacationing Filipinos. But that was before Mr. Duterte locked down Metro Manila — and the entire Luzon island later — to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak that the World Health Organization has since called a pandemic.

Henann Prime’s Mr. Cepe said Boracay’s resort industry probably won’t survive a nationwide lockdown

The resort, he said, was still working on contingency plans in case a COVID-19 case was reported on the island.

Mr. Arebalo, mentioned at the outset, said he’d rather wait it out. “We need to bear this and I’ll be staying for a few more months. I might still get my job back.”





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