June 24, 2020 at 12:05 am
"Better to invest in improving infrastructure in a few target areas, especially promoting sustainability and environmental protection."
Many travel and airline analysts project near normalcy to begin no earlier than 2023.
The “dangerous phase” that WHO warns we are entering means in plain and simple language, no relief in sight from the coronavirus this year.
Scientists are still frantically doing research and testing on a vaccine that would immunize the world population from the virus. There are encouraging signs, but take note that vaccines are supposed to prevent disease rather than to cure, and works on creating antibodies that would repel the virus. Extensive testing is thus needed, lest people are injected with something that may have side effects and trigger dangerous ailments. And note again that producing the numbers required, on top of distribution and actual vaccination of millions, takes time.
Until then, tourism will not regain the kind of momentum that cheap airfares and low-cost packages spurred for world travel. 2019, which for the Philippines was a banner year with 8.3 million visitor arrivals, is not likely to be replicated within the term of the president, and perhaps not even for the first few years of the next.
So promoting the country abroad through advertorials in mainstream and social media, or even maintaining tourism posts abroad to promote the country to travel agents and foreign individual travelers, would at this point in time just be good money thrown to waste.
Our biggest enemy is fear of travel because of fear of contagion, and that will linger for quite some time. Remember that even the world’s favorite destinations, Europe and the US of A, Japan and China, have been highly infected.
Secretary Berna is right in pushing for domestic travel in the meantime. But then again, fear of travel would still persist. A single irresponsible party by the Bureau of Fire Protection in Region 6 caused such a great furor on the day Boracay reopened after enhanced quarantines. Think of another tourist magnet, which is Cebu, now experiencing viral contagion at peak levels.
Another dampener to domestic tourism is cost. With lesser economies of scale, airlines will charge more. Four- and five-star hotels will find it difficult to compete with two- and three-star outfits, price-wise, and still maintain high quality standards. Markets will be highly niched.
Also, the fear of travel, especially for families with young kids, will likely get domestic travel focused on nearby “safe” destinations. One-day trips instead of prolonged vacations will be more likely.
In Taiwan, when the China market started to decline due to soured cross-strait relations since 2017, government focused on enhancing domestic tourism, aside from pushing for nearby markets like Asean countries through the 14-day visa-free entry. But domestic travel carried the day for Taiwan’s large hotel and restaurant business.
Now, government is subsidizing domestic travel through consumer coupons, and cities and counties are giving huge discounts to boost their tourist come-ons. Nantou County just opened the longest and highest suspension bridge near the Shuanglong Waterfall, a not-too-spectacular waterfall, except that walking through a 30-storey high gorge is a novel experience for locals and their children. (Tinago Falls in Iligan City is far better, but then accessibility is a problem).
Which brings me to a suggestion, something that Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano has recently espoused.
Since inward tourism from foreign markets will decline considerably, if not almost dry up (except for business travel which isn’t likely to gather steam either), it may be better to invest in improving infrastructure in a few target areas, especially promoting sustainability and environmental protection.
And because the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority has virtually no income these days from the travel tax on account of a virtual shut-out of travel abroad by Filipinos, other than OFW’s who are travel tax-exempt, budgetary allocation is called for, as Speaker Cayetano suggests.
(Writer’s disclosure: the current COO of TIEZA is my son-in-law. I used to head the Philippine Tourism Authority under Pres. Joseph Estrada, TIEZA’s predecessor, replaced by R.A. 9593 or the Tourism Act principally authored by Sen. Richard Gordon, himself a former tourism secretary).
Speaker Alan’s proposal assumes that a new normal in tourism will yet come about, especially with millennials and younger generations who will want to visit other countries. Which is being realistic.
But we must be prepared for that eventuality. As it is, TIEZA’s reserves have been contributed to the cash requirements of the national government in the fight against COVID-19. That is sad for tourism, but quite understandable in the light of the deleterious effects of the pandemic on public health, which is of course top priority in these times. Also, the main revenue generators, BIR, BOC and even Pagcor have considerably reduced sources of income due to the protracted lockdown.
But looking forward, tourism is a major pillar of the economy, and so many, skilled and under-skilled, rely on it for livelihood. We may be currently unable to do much other than encourage Filipinos to see more of their own country, but by 2023, things should turn around. And we ought to prepare.
As it is, Boracay’s drainage and sewerage has been rehabilitated. Panglao in Bohol needs the same. And the world-class attractions of Palawan have to be protected from further degradation by the right infrastructure. So should the summer capital, Baguio, which is a natural magnet for domestic tourists, let alone expatriates. And Manila with historic Intramuros, of course.
A little more investment by the national government should go a long way.