Ready, set, travel

Is the industry ready for the post-pandemic boom in tourism?

ISLANDS IN THE SUN Paradise refound in Coron, Palawan

“As of today, we’ve breached the 1.7 million foreign visitor arrivals mark projected by the Department of Tourism (DOT) before June 30,” Tourism Secretary Cristina Frasco announced on Oct. 17.

These numbers, 1.7 million foreign tourists, may be insignificant compared to 2019 figures when international tourists totaled nearly 8.3 million, our “highest number ever,” but it is a clear indication that the travel and tourism industry is bouncing back, and with a vengeance.

From tourism’s share of 13 percent to our country’s GDP at its height, the rate fell to a low of five percent in 2021. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas says that travel-related services declined by 81.7 percent to $1.8 billion in 2020 and by another 66.5 percent in 2021 to only $600 million.

There was, understandably, an almost 90 percent decline in travel between 2020 and 2021.

Recent statistics, however, are encouraging. DOT data, logged from February to October this year, show skyrocketing numbers. In February, there were 26,306 tourists. By April, the 100k mark was breached with 115,515 tourists arriving. In October, 227,677 international tourists arrived in the Philippines.

But what’s even more heartening is seeing an increasing number of Filipinos exploring their own backyard. Even before the pandemic, 85 percent of travel receipts came from the domestic market, which is why travel insiders have always believed that while we need the foreign market revenue, the domestic market can buoy the travel and tourism sector.

The year 2019 saw 122.1 million domestic tourism; 2020 saw 26, 982,233 domestic trips, and 2021 had about 37,279, 282,. While still a far cry from pre-pandemic numbers, an uptick of workers in the tourism industry, with 4.9 million workers returning in full force in 2021, translated to nearly five percent higher than 2020.

ALL CLEAR PTAA agents in Turkey on their first post-pandemic overseas trip in February this year

NCR remains a Filipino favorite, followed by Calabarzon, and then Central Luzon.

While we are awaiting the official statistics for 2022, testimonies from tourism executives and frontliners paint an absolutely bright picture for the travel industry.

Veteran travel agent Ness Santiago of Traveltime Tours, Inc. says she’s overwhelmed by the number of bookings. “Patong patong ang schedule ko (Our schedules are overlapping),” she says. “Everyone just wants to travel. I don’t know how to manage them all. This December, I have groups for Japan, Egypt, and Europe. It’s almost back to pre-pandemic rates as most countries have lifted their restrictions.”

Her clientele comes from the higher end segment of the market, which is probably why, even with more expensive rates—from the pre-pandemic price of $2,500 to today’s $2,990 per person—she’s already booked back to back with five holy land tours. Joie Ledesma of JDL Traveltech and Tours says local destinations are having their moment. “Especially Palawan, Boracay, Bohol, and Cebu, for Filipinos who want to travel but are still reluctant to travel abroad,” she says.

‘It’s not just revenge travel. It’s “Survival Celebration.”’

Karl Chusuey, Henann Group’s VP for sales and marketing, affirms this. Before Covid, South Koreans and mainland Chinese made up the bulk of the guests at this homegrown company’s many properties.

“Locals really surged in the first and second quarter of 2022,” says Karl Chusuey. “Restrictions for other countries were still in place and Filipinos were still afraid to travel then, but it’s stabilizing now, and now we have foreign tourists streaming in from Korea and Taiwan.” Filipinos, according to the young executive, are now more confident with outbound travel. Filipinos traveling domestically has indeed reached new highs. Margie Munsayac of the Bluewater Resorts group shares they’ve been getting more Filipino guests. “On peak months occupancy is higher than pre-pandemic,” she says of the flagship Bluewater Maribago. “Occupancy is very fluid, and on lean months it’s at 60 percent level.” At Bluewater Maribago, 65 percent of guests are foreigners. In Sumilon and Panglao, the domestic market remains strong, cornering nearly 80 percent. 

THE BEACH IS OPEN Hennan Garden Resort in Boracay

In a press conference in September by the Philippine Travel Agencies Association (PTAA), president Michelle G. Taylan says that the biggest problem they have is the lack of frontliners. “The travel agencies that closed saw their employees look for their other jobs, and now that revenge travel is back, it’s not easy for them to get their employees back,” says Taylan.

And they badly need workers to staff travel jobs as industry stakeholders are optimistic, saying that the forecast for 2023 see rates tripling. “I am just basing it off the number of bookings, as our members’ booking are overflowing,” Taylan says.

Filipino travelers profess revenge travel is indeed very real.

Helen Alforja has completed 81 provinces before November started. “I’ve traveled twice or thrice since January this year,” she says. “I’m done with 81 provinces, and I’ve used up all my savings, but at least I’ve discovered the Philippines. Ganda ng Pilipinas! I have one more province to go to but that’s for next year.”

Prior to the pandemic, Iryne Somera’s family traveled once a year. This year, they traveled four times: “Revenge it is!” she says.

Some say they’ve spent more this year on stuff related to adventure and travel than all other years combined. That’s certainly true for Sha Dalisay, who moved around money intended for home renovations to camping and hiking equipment. “I badly needed a reboot or I’ll go insane,” she says.

Dubai-based five-star hotel Filipino staff Nikki Naidas says, “Nakikipag sabayan ang mga Pilipinong turista sa mga Russo at Chinese when it comes to spending here in Dubai. We started seeing more Filipinos even during the height of Covid as soon as the borders opened.”

Gey Pang used to travel to Singapore thrice a year, but she’s traveled to SG—one of the first destinations to lift their restrictions (another Pinoy favorite, Hong Kong, still has few restrictions many won’t have the patience and resources to tolerate)—eight times this year.

“It’s not just revenge travel,” Mark Reyes, an OFW in the Middle East, weighs in. “It’s ‘Survival Celebration.’ We survived the worst of the pandemic and we realized just how short life is, nobody knows what the future has in store for us.”