How Can the Philippine Tourism Industry Bounce Back After COVID-19?

The booming industry came to a screeching halt. Is the country poised to welcome back tourists after the pandemic?

Photo of Sinulog Festival by Chloe Evans on Unsplash

2019 was a stellar year for the travel industry in the Philippines. The country saw an all-time high of 8.26 million foreign visitors last year—a whopping growth of 15.24 percent from 2018’s 7.16 million. 

And then the pandemic happened.

The map above shows where foreign visitors to the Philippines are from. Hover to see more details.

As with the rest of the world, the coronavirus brought the local tourism industry to its knees.  

In an attempt to shed light on the future of Philippine tourism after COVID-19, the Department of Tourism (DOT) brought together key industry players in a Facebook webinar last May 19, 2020.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat played host to the virtual seminar, where key industry players weighed in on the effects of the pandemic and how the local and global industry can possibly bounce back.

Craig Smith, president and managing director of Asia Pacific Marriott Hotels, and Anita Mendiratta, founder of Anita Mendiratta and Associates, both agree that recovery will be done in segments: domestic travel will pick up first, followed by regional before giving way to international travel.

However, any country that wishes to welcome back tourists—domestic or foreign—has to first meet one crucial criterion: traveler’s safety. Gloria Guevara, president and CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), highlights that aggressive containment methods, such as testing, contact tracing, and isolation, must be done. Effective coordination between the public and private sectors is also vital.

How will tourism in the Philippines recover given this new paradigm? To answer that, let’s first examine the country’s top tourist destinations (according to city/municipality) and how each respective city is responding to the threat of COVID-19.

Tourism highs

This infographic illustrates the most visited cities/municipalities in the Philippines. The figures presented correspond to travelers who stayed at least overnight in accommodation establishments. Hover to see more details.

Ranking as the most popular tourist destination in the country is Cebu City. It’s the most visited city in 2018 with 2.6 million overnight travelers (i.e., those who stayed for at least one night in accommodation establishments), according to the latest available data from DOT. The bustling metropolis in Central Visayas region is home to historical and heritage sites, as well as the world-famous Sinulog Festival.

Following closely at its heels is Davao City in Mindanao, with 2.4 million overnight travelers. This populous area is home to several natural tourist attractions. It is also the jump-off point for Samal Island, which can rival Boracay for its picturesque beaches.

Baguio City, touted as the country’s Summer Capital for its cool climate, comes in third. Located in the northern part of the Philippines, travelers from Metro Manila and its adjacent areas find their way to this city during long weekends and holidays. Baguio saw 1.8 million tourist arrivals last 2018, with peaks during the Christmas season .

Yet no matter how pristine the beaches are, or how entertaining the festivals and delectable the regional cuisines, these top destinations were not spared from the dwindling number of visitors due to the coronavirus. After all, who would want to travel with such a major health risk for an extra baggage?

The graph above shows the number of COVID-19 cases (total, daily, and 7-day moving average) in the Philippines. Total number of cases are shown in both linear and logarithmic scales. Click on the dropdown menu to show the number of cases in the cities of Cebu, Davao, and Baguio. (The dates stated are based accordingly in this order, depending on available data: onset of symptoms, specimen collection, release of result, or public announcement as confirmed case. Data from the Department of Health are presented as is.)

One step forward, two steps back

Cebu City, which leads the pack as the top city destination in the Philippines, also logs the highest number of COVID-19 cases. It has 4,639 cases according to the COVID-10 Department of Health Data Drop last June 29, 2020.

The Queen City of the South, which enjoyed more relaxed quarantine restrictions starting June 1, was once again placed on lockdown last June 16. Mayor Edgar Labella lobbied for reconsideration, arguing that “Cebu City’s recovery rate is higher compared to the national average of 23.66% and it’s case fatality rate lower compared to the national average of 4.16%.”

In the same letter addressed to the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Regional Director Leocadio T. Trovela last June 16, Labella enumerated the city’s efforts to address the pandemic. As of April 2020, there are already 52 Barangay Isolation Centers (BICs) for asymptomatic carriers, while the Cebu City Quarantine Center (CCQC) caters to those with mild or moderate symptoms. The mayor also said that their City Health Office has expanded its testing procedures to include third-generation contacts (not just direct contacts) of patients who tested positive. Furthermore, the city has also invested on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines as well as swab and test kits. “And despite having the most number of cumulative COVID-19 cases in the country, the City manages to have more recoveries than active cases and very minimal case fatality rate,” concludes Labella in his letter.

On June 23, quarantine passes were cancelled, to which Labella has acquiesced. Lockdown in the city is still in effect until July 15, as announced by Pres. Rodrigo Duterte in his recent address to the nation last June 30.  Frontliners and essential workers are still allowed to leave their homes.  

The value of foresight

Davao City, which has 326 positive COVID-19 cases as per the same COVID-19 DOH Data Drop, is looking at hiring more frontliners to beef up its contact-tracing efforts. The city is bracing for a surge in cases as more people go out of their homes given the modified general community quarantine (MGCQ), which is a more relaxed quarantine level. Mobilizing more contact tracers is urgent, according to Davao City Mayor Sarah Duterte, because any delay in tracing possible infected individuals might prove detrimental in effectively containing the virus.

From March 23 to June 13, the city operated “Tawag Kay Doc,” a medical consultation done over the telephone. One hundred fifty volunteer doctors were able to accommodate more than 12,000 calls in an effort to curb the number of positive cases. Davao City is also keeping a close eye on 35 households put on lockdown to further halt the spread of the virus. Any household member who will test positive after 14 days of home confinement will be immediately sent to an isolation facility, says Dr. Joy Villafuerte, head of the City Health Office (CHO). Food is provided to each household during the two-week lockdown period. In the meantime, Dabawenyos are still urged to comply with protocols in place. Those who fail to do so will be charged for violations.  

The city is also putting in effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 to other regions by implementing pre-departure screening measures. Anyone who will test positive will not be allowed to fly out.

Exceeding expectations

While Baguio City comes in third in terms of tourist arrivals, the Summer Capital of the country is hailed as a model city when it comes to containing the virus. There are only 44 positive cases as of June 29. As of this writing, the city is under MGCQ.

In what appears to be an unorthodox practice, Baguio residents who tested positive were encouraged to come out to the public to warn others of possible exposure. Doing so makes contact tracing more efficient and effective.

Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong promotes such transparency, saying that “ostracizing [COVID-positive individuals] will not do any good to anyone at this point as this will only add to their burden and at the same time thwart our efforts to encourage other patients to publicly come out and help in contact tracing.” The mayor also pushed for a more stringent approach in immediately tracing contacts of suspected virus carriers even before they are confirmed positive.

The local government is proactive in making COVID-related information readily available through its dashboard. Distribution of donations and financial support can also be accessed using the same portal. Also commendable is Baguio General Hospital’s use of artificial intelligence-assisted technology from Huawei, as well as the local agriculture office’s move to distribute seedlings and prompt residents to grow their own “survival gardens.”

The new travel must-haves

The scatter plot above shows the data on the number of COVID-19 cases versus the number of travelers who stayed at least overnight in accommodation establishments. While no clear correlation can be inferred between the two datasets, the scatter plot shows Cebu City as an outlier from the rest of the LGUs.

Baguio City is looking forward to welcoming domestic tourists come September, but only if it successfully avoids an increase in cases. Equally important are the COVID-19 numbers of its neighboring regions like Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and Region 4. Travelers from these areas are a major driver of Baguio’s tourism industry. Hence, if the numbers don’t go down in these areas, a roadtrip to Baguio will have to wait.

This if-then scenario foreshadows the future of tourism in the country and in the rest of the world. In the DOT webinar, Mendiratta highlights the importance of safety corridors as the main “tourist attraction” for future travel. She adds that governments must ensure there will be no “mobility bottlenecks.” Guevara echoes this sentiment, asserting that stakeholders must put a premium on traveler safety by establishing and implementing strict protocols.

As such, hygiene and cleanliness practices must be re-examined, says Smith. He encourages the adaption of technology, such as mobile check-ins and use of apps for room service, to limit physical contact. “Safety and hygiene are going to be the new amenities for the next short- to long-term period,” he posits, adding that brands who can earn travelers’ trust will win. “Do everything you can to promote what you’re doing about safety.”

Smith remains positive about Asia, though, surmising that it will lead the road to recovery given its tenacious approach in containing the virus. Therefore, doing the bare minimum will not suffice if the Philippines wants its tourism industry to bounce back. It’s not enough that one city or region is able to handle containment with flying colors. How the entire country and the government rise up to the challenge of the pandemic—or their failure to do so—will undoubtedly spell the future of Philippine tourism in a post-COVID-19 world.

All information presented here are based on limited data available and are only meant for an overview of the subject. For in-depth analyses, an extensive study is necessary.

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