TOURISM has been a primary driver in the Philippine economy and is the second largest contributor to the national revenue. Last year, the industry cornered 12.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Despite its strong performance, Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, Department of Tourism (DOT) secretary, said tourism is one of the hardest-hit sectors globally when the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spread across countries.
Puyat, in an interview with Malaya Business Insight, said the enforcement of travel border restrictions and quarantine measures globally has immediate negative effects on tourism stakeholders, regardless of size.
She said in their intervention during a special Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting on COVID-19, the pandemic has caused a major shift in the landscape of the travel industry – before, food, culture and immersions influence a traveler’s choice; today, safety will be the paramount concern of most, if not all of the visitors.
New aspects of event organization will be considerations in the destination and venue selection process, she said. “Health, hygiene, sanitation measures, social distancing practices as well as insurance coverage will be top of mind issues.”
When the entire Luzon was put under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), non-essential businesses like the tourism industry were disallowed to continue operations due to quarantine measures.
At present, Puyat said the only tourism establishments that remain operational are accommodation establishments working on limited manpower and logistics to accommodate repatriated overseas Filipino workers, health front liners, business process outsourcing professionals, bank employees and long-staying guests already booked prior to the ECQ.
For the first quarter of the year, she noted a 40.18 percent decrease in foreign arrivals. “The magnifying effect of the pandemic is felt not only by businesses but also by the communities, especially the areas that are highly-dependent on tourism such as Bohol and Boracay Islands, to name a few,” Puyat said.
“The economic recoil of the pandemic translates to loss of businesses, livelihood and jobs as we have received reports from our stakeholders that some of them have had to close businesses and lay off manpower in the midst of the ECQ,” she added.
According to Puyat, the tourism situation will remain fluid and unpredictable unless a vaccine is developed and made available to the public. While hoping to see a vibrant and thriving tourism industry, “we understand that travel restrictions will be continuously enforced because anyone can be a (COVID-19) carrier,” she said.
In a recent webinar organized by the DOT and Tourism Promotions Board in cooperation with the Philippine Association of Convention/Exhibition Organizers and Suppliers, Puyat said international meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) experts remain optimistic that “we will start to see the recovery of the MICE sector towards the end of this year, through to mid-2021, with Asian markets seen to be rebounding the fastest.”
Puyat eyes to recalibrate marketing efforts for MICE to include the safety protocols of the new normal. She believes this will help build confidence in the target markets.
“We aim to have domestic MICE as a priority and become part of our overall intended push for a domestic tourism campaign during recovery,” she said.
She explained that the recovery of the MICE will be in phases, jumpstarted by local MICE events, with attendees coming from close destinations within driving distance or accessible by a short flight, followed by Asia-Pacific MICE events, while international MICE events will take longest to return.
“Each phase will also consider the type of MICE events, number of attending public, and compliance to health and safety protocols set by government to MICE organizers, venue owners and MICE suppliers,” she pointed out.
To mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the travel and tourism industry, Puyat said the Philippine government has immediately implemented policies and initiatives such as the moratorium on the collection of accreditation fees from new and renewing applicants from tourism enterprises and tourism-related enterprises for 2020; provision of financial assistance to displaced tourism workers; and launching of enhanced training schemes such as online learning sessions for tourism stakeholders.
The Philippine tourism industry is currently fine tuning its tourism response and recovery program (TRRP) which will serve as the masterplan as it works to bounce back as a more resilient industry, Puyat said.
“The TRRP includes programs, projects and activities under five thematic outcomes towards mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 on the tourism industry with emphasis on sustaining businesses, capacitating workforce and protecting vulnerable groups,” she said.
These themed outcomes are appropriate infrastructure; secured livelihood and adequate social services; sustained business operations; enhanced marketing, market and product development; timely and efficient institutional support; and effective strategic communications.
Among the proposed fiscal incentives for tourism enterprises and tourism-related establishments are tax deferment, establishment of business revitalization packages and access to low-interest/interest-free loans, Puyat said.
“We have pushed for the inclusion of our inputs to several economic stimulus bills filed in Congress that aim to financially help both business groups and tourism industry employees, associates and workers,” she added, noting the DOT is constantly in touch with tourism industry leaders and has been apprised of the stakeholders’ priority needs.
The DOT also sought the assistance of various national government agencies to extend support to the tourism sector. As of May 4, the Department of Finance’s wage subsidy program has uploaded to PESOnet or DBP Pera Padala (remittances through MLhuillier) the following beneficiaries: hotels and restaurants (155,126 employees of 4,723 employers) and air transport (546 employees of 17 employers).
Puyat said the DOT has addressed their most pressing concerns and will continue to do so by crafting with them its medium- and long-term strategies towards full recovery.
Still, Puyat said opening the country’s tourism depends on a lot of factors that are beyond its control.
“The development of a vaccine will greatly speed-up the timeline but until then, we are limited by the travel restrictions of the destination’s local government unit and each country across the world,” she explained.
A “new normal” will also be introduced as a result of the pandemic when travel and tourism operations resume. The DOT’s policies and programs adapting to a new normal state of economic activities require the following:
First, regular sanitation/disinfection of accommodation (hotels, resorts, etc.); tourist transport services; and tourism-related establishments such as meeting and exhibit venues, restaurants, spas and the like.
Second, provision of sanitation/disinfecting devices, including personal protective equipment, for tourism workers.
Third, regular inspections of tourism establishments that will involve relevant agencies in relation to health and safety standards such as the Department of Health.
Fourth, the development of online systems that can facilitate tourism-related transactions digitally such as applications for accreditation, training and modules, and even retail.
Lastly, the implementation of safety plans and protocols for tourism enterprises moving forward. Expect limitations in terms of the number of people allowed in tourism transportations, restaurants and even the tourist spots, such as parks and museums.
The DOT is currently working with stakeholders in firming up an omnibus revised tourism standards under the new normal.
“We have already issued for industry feedback our proposed new standards for accommodation, tourist transport, travel and tour, MICE, tour guides, and food and beverage enterprises,” Puyat said, adding the DOT will soon roll out these new standards and provide ample time for stakeholders to comply.