The year 2020 started with optimism as the Department of Tourism (DoT) aimed to surpass the achievements in 2019 when the tourism industry contributed 12.7 percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), of which 10.8 percent came from domestic tourism.
Based on the National Tourism Development Plan (NTDP) 2016-2022 or the blueprint of the national government’s tourism goals, the DoT was supposed to aim for 9.2 million foreign visitor arrivals this year, with inbound revenue projected at P661 billion and generating around six million jobs.
But the projections made did not fit the disasters and conflicts brought by 2020.
As early as January, tourism enterprises in tourist magnet Tagaytay City and others from the Calabarzon region had to close amid tremendous setbacks due to the Taal Volcano eruption.
Almost two weeks later, the government confirmed the country’s first case of COVID-19.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat assured the industry stakeholders that the situation is “temporary” and planned to take advantage of the situation to showcase the country as a “safe and fun destination.”
But President Duterte later on announced the imminent restrictions for the entire Luzon as COVID-19 cases had already infected at least 52 people and claimed five lives as of March 12.
The sudden announcement of travel restrictions across borders, including inbound and outbound travel, left thousands of individuals stranded, majority of which are foreign nationals who had to catch flights back to their home countries.
The DoT has assisted a total of 36,947 stranded foreign and domestic tourists by helping mount sweeper and commercial recovery flights from provincial airports since land, air, and sea travel have been suspended as a precautionary measure to stop the spread of the disease.
More than 24,000 hotel rooms have also been secured for the homebound and distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who are required to undergo the 14-day quarantine upon their arrival to the country.
Massive business shutdowns
But the hotel industry was later haunted by the burgeoning debt of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), the agency in-charge of paying the accommodation of OFWs, worth around P241 million, thus, adding to the financial burden of the establishments and unpaid salaries of hotel workers.
The crisis also paralyzed the operations of the meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE) businesses, tour operators, travel agents, and dive operators.
“Our member travel agencies have been forced to pivot to other businesses to tide them over,” Michelle Taylan, newly elected president of the Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA), said.
“The pandemic threw a monkey wrench into all our MICE Plans, literally pushing it to a screeching halt,” Joel Pascual, president of the Philippine Association of Convention and Exhibition Organizers and Suppliers (PACEOS), said.
The DoT continues to recognize MICE as a high-value added sector, identified in the NTDP as one of the country’s nine tourism products, with a target tourism revenue share of 22 percent or roughly about $1.1 billion.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has now incurred approximately P2.1 billion revenue losses in the MICE industry alone.
“By the nature of what tourism is, it was categorized as a nonessential industry with barely enough assistance given to stakeholders,” Tourism Congress of the Philippines (TCP) president Jose Clemente III told the Manila Bulletin.
While in the middle of a massive tourism shutdown, the industry was again challenged after the House of Representatives realigned the budget in the now Republic Act No. 11494 (Bayanihan 2) by simply allocating the funds for tourism infrastructure development, something that is not identified as the foremost needs for their recovery.
Calls for amendment have been made and the bicameral conference committee approved the P10-billion aid toward recovery.
The P6-billion portion went to the Small Business Guarantee and Finance Corp. (SBGFC) of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to provide soft loans to struggling tourism enterprises. The rest was disbursed for cash assistance and cash-for-work programs for the displaced tourism workers through the Labor department.
‘New normal’ guidelines
As the country slowly revives the hardest hit sector, the DoT released health and safety guidelines to sustain its “slow but sure” approach.
These include the reduction of operating capacity of dine-in restaurants, hotel rooms, and tourist transport services. The carrying capacity of tourism destinations has also been reduced to prevent “overtourism.”
The Tourism chief has reiterated that she will no longer allow overtourism or the absence of good management and uncontrolled development in tourism destinations.
The use of online contact tracing to monitor the movement of tourists and the implementation of the visitor management system to track and manage the number tourists coming into several Philippine destinations have been required to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak in tourism.
Resumption of domestic travel
With the “new normal” safety protocols in place, the DoT, in concurrence with local government units (LGUs) and donations from the private sector, began reopening some of the country’s major tourism destinations by introducing the concept of “travel bubble” – the 2020 buzzword which means reopening of borders to places with contained COVID-19 cases.
The Philippines is also the 100th destination awarded by the prestigious World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) with the “Safe Travels” specialized global safety stamp.
Boracay Island, Baguio City, Palawan, Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Batangas, Siargao Island, and Bohol then expanded its doors to all local tourists.
To ensure the safety of tourism workers and visitors, the DoT implemented a test-before-travel policy where travelers are required to shoulder additional cost for the reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test for out-of-town trips and antigen test for “staycation” in hotels on top of their normal expenses.
Do-it-yourself (DIY) trips have also been prohibited, so tourists are now required to present confirmed hotel reservation with a DoT-accredited accommodation establishment, confirmed round-trip plane tickets, and tour itinerary with a DoT-accredited tour operator.
But some complained about the confusing travel requirements, prompting Puyat to call on all local heads to adopt a uniform set of requirements that are within the existing omnibus interim guidelines of the national government’s COVID-19 task force for a seamless travel.
However, the reopening of tourism did not come smoothly amid quarantine breach incidents and the issues on forged RT-PCR test results.
To ease the financial burden of travelers, The DoT, through its marketing arm Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), partnered with government hospitals like the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH) and Philippine Children Medical Center (PCMC) for a subsidized and by far the cheapest price of RT-PCR testing fee for qualified tourists to spur the recovery of tourism.
“The toughest challenge was the fact that we could not promote tourism destinations the way we used to simply because they were closed to tourists or that we could not even promote at all. This compelled us to creatively explore ways to keep the connection with our tourists, while at the same time, gradually assist our local government units and our stakeholders prepare for the new normal in travel,” TPB Chief Operating Officer Atty. Maria Anthonette Velasco-Allones told the Manila Bulletin.
“The TPB is developing its strategic marketing program for the medium and long-term, aiming to align with DoT’s national tourism product development thrusts and the goals identified in the modified Philippine Development Plan and Ambisyon 2040 blueprint,” she added.
“We will also deepen the partnerships we forged with our LGUs in marketing the destinations that are ready to welcome back tourists, and rationally mobilize resources to support the various local/regional rebranding campaigns,” she said.
But even at the most challenging time, the foreign market continues to patronize the Philippines as a tourism destination.
The first hybrid edition of the Philippine Travel Exchange (PHITEX) generated over P42 million in revenue from on-site bookings, with a 70 percent success rate that is way higher than the lead generation success rate of 67 percent in the last PHITEX.
“We pivoted this year’s PHITEX to convey the message that the Philippine tourism industry always means business, be in usual or unusual times,” Puyat said.
Several Philippine destinations have also been recognized globally.
The country’s dive sites and the Spanish citadel Intramuros once again bagged accolades at the 27th World Travel Awards. The award-giving body recognized the Philippines as the World’s Leading Dive Destination and Intramuros as the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in 2020.
The Philippines also received the award as the Best Overseas Diving Area in the Marine Diving Awards 2020 in Tokyo Japan.
The island province of Palawan has reclaimed its top spot as the Best Island in the World for this year as cited by the world-renowned travel publication Travel + Leisure, which now makes Palawan as a four-time winner of the said award.
As the revenue generated from tourism had a sharp decline in 11 months to November as the ban on inbound international travel remains, the DoT will be reviewing and recalibrating its NTDP targets.
Puyat said the year 2021 will be about local tourism.