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Time to prepare for tourism reopening

One of the sectors that will lead the Philippine recovery once a vaccine becomes available to the public is tourism because of its direct linkage to economic development.

Every rich nation on the planet has a vibrant tourism industry, made possible by robust infrastructure and transport network, and the wide availability of amenities such as convention centers, hotels, resorts, restaurants and shopping centers.

Following months of lockdown, many residents of Metro Manila are apparently yearning for travel, as evident in the large crowd that swelled along Roxas Boulevard to witness the “white sand beach” of Manila Bay. Unfortunately, social distancing rules were violated during the event, which necessitated crowd control.

This only shows that we need to better prepare for the reopening of the tourism sector with the necessary protocols. For the meantime, let’s provide the required infrastructure to make sure travel to the country’s major destinations will be as smooth and orderly as required under the new normal.

There are good examples of responsible tourism in the time of the pandemic, and one is exemplified by Baguio City, the summer capital. The Department of Tourism naturally wants to replicate the “travel bubble program” of Baguio City in other parts of the country.

Baguio City, the pilot area for the gradual reopening of tourism, will reopen its travel sites to visitors from other areas in Region 1 on October 1. The city plans to initially accommodate up to 200 tourists a day to set the pace for other local destinations that will also reopen. The idea is to open the destination to a manageable number of tourists, learn from the experience on how to manage it, and build a higher level of confidence for more visitors in the future.

We need standardized protocols to ensure the safety of travel and tourism. The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), which represents the private sector in the tourism industry, recently announced the Philippines became the 100th destination to use its “Safe
Travels” stamp—the world’s first global safety and hygiene fingerprint that was developed to help restore confidence among travelers and revive the ailing sector.

It employs protocols that follow the guidelines of the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the best practices from WTTC’s members. The specially designed stamp enables travelers to recognize destinations that have adopted health and hygiene protocols, so they can experience safe travels. It is now being used by several holiday destinations.

Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat has welcomed the WTTC Safe Travels stamp, as the Philippines pursues the safe and gradual reopening of tourism destinations. The stamp, according to her, will encourage stakeholders to adhere to health and safety standards and help rebuild travelers’ confidence to restart tourism and preserve and sustain jobs.

The move by WTTC has received the support of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, which noted that international visitor arrivals plunged 93 percent in June 2020 from a year ago, as the sector suffered from the severe impact of Covid-19. Data from the World Tourism Barometer also shows international arrivals fell 65 percent in the first six months of 2020, as nations around the world closed their borders and introduced travel restrictions in response to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, a growing number of global destinations in recent weeks have started to reopen to international tourists. As of early September, 53 percent of destinations had eased travel restrictions, but many governments remained cautious, according to the UNWTO.

For its part, IATA, the group of airline companies, called for a systematic Covid-19 testing of all travelers before departure to give governments the confidence to open their borders without complicated risk models that see constant changes in the rules imposed on travel.

The UNWTO has estimated that the massive drop in international travel demand in the first six months of 2020 translated into a loss of 440 million international arrivals and about $460 billion in revenues from international tourism.

“This is around five times the loss in international tourism receipts recorded in 2009 amid the global economic and financial crisis,” the UN agency said.

The Asia-Pacific region was the hardest hit, with a 72-percent decline in tourists in the six-month period. This has resulted in massive job losses in countries such as the Philippines. The pandemic has affected 60,000 flights of Philippine Airlines involving 1.3 million passengers. Cebu Pacific’s flights were also reduced to just a tenth of its route network last year.

The fewer flights resulted in a 76-percent decline in international visitor arrivals in the Philippines in the first eight months of 2020 to just about 1.3 million, most of which were registered in January and February before the lockdown in mid-March. The DOT in 2019 reported 8.2 million arrivals that brought $9.31 billion in tourism receipts.

Our economic managers agree there is a need to open up the economy in the safest possible way.

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said the government would eventually rely less on determining a level of community quarantine and more on adopting specific measures, such as more granular lockdowns.

The Department of Public Works and Highways led by Secretary Mark Villar is also playing a crucial role in the reopening of the economy as the agency continues to lead the development of infrastructure projects as well as quarantine facilities that will protect the affected Filipinos and allow the healthy citizens to travel and work.

While we may not see the level of tourism traffic that we observed last year anytime soon, we should use the lag time to build more transport infrastructure, such as toll roads, bridges, railways and airports, as well as health care and tourism facilities to make sure we are ready to accommodate the influx of tourists once the pandemic is over.

For comments, e-mail mbv.secretariat@gmail.com or visit www.mannyvillar.com.ph.

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