THE year 2019 was a good year for Philippine tourism.
Data from the Department of Tourism (DOT) showed that the country had some 8 million international arrivals in 2019. Domestic tourism was thriving too with around 110 million local trips logged. These pumped in around P2.48 trillion into the economy accounting for 12.7 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).
Tourism enterprises across the country are also employing around 5.71 million persons.
Roberto P. Alabado, DOT assistant secretary for tourism development planning, said the first two months of 2020 also looked promising for Philippine tourism.
"We were looking forward to continuing this positive trend in 2020 and for the first two months our numbers were encouraging but by mid-March, the worst-case scenario happened," he said during the Sama-sama Asean Webinar on August 20, 2020.
After the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) and with the declaration of lockdowns in different parts of the country, all tourism activities in the Philippines grounded to a halt.
Alabado said foreign tourist arrivals from January to July 2020 contracted by negative 72 percent compared to the same period in 2019.
“In terms of tourism receipts, we may have lost about P200 billion from expected revenues from foreign tourists alone,” he said.
Despite the sudden drop in the growth indicators of the tourism industry, Alabado expressed optimism with the “slow but sure” approach the DOT is taking in response to the current situation. He added that the agency is now focused on strengthening the resiliency and sustainability of the tourism industry in the country as it enters a “new normal.”
“The question now is can the tourism industry recover and even grow in what we call the new normal? The DOT's answer is yes,” Alabado said.
He said it will take time before international tourists are coming to the Philippines again to visit its sites.
“However, we are looking forward that our catalyst would be our domestic travel industry, which has been quite strong in the past few years,” Alabado said.
Aside from the 110 million domestic trips logged in 2019, domestic tourist expenditure also reached around P3.14 trillion in 2019.
"The data would show that domestic tourists are the real heroes of our industry and I know, that we can count on them to revive local tourism now when we need them most," Alabado said.
He said based on DOT’s Philippine Travel Survey, it showed that 77 percent of the respondents are willing to travel in the absence of a vaccine. Of this group, 48 percent also say that they are willing to travel within six months from the lifting of travel restrictions.
The survey also showed that health and safety is the primary concern of travelers with 96 percent of whom want to see certified disinfecting protocols and regular sanitations in establishments.
Alabado said tourists now would prefer contactless transactions and would prefer to use online and digital channels for their convenience.
In response to the changing needs of the tourists, DOT has partnered with startup Talino Venture Labs on the development of digital solutions for hotels and restaurants. Alabado said these digital solutions are anchored on contactless transactions for the prevention and management of Covid-19 and to strengthen DOT’s advocacy for sustainable tourism development in the new normal.
The department is also encouraging tourism enterprises to adopt contactless systems.
"The pandemic has truly been an impetus behind the shift towards the no-touch economy,” Alabado said.
DOT has also formed the Task Force on Domestic Tourism Product and Market Development, which conceptualizes and develops new tourism-related products and programs that “will enhance tourist sites and facilities for the domestic market.”
Another strategy the department is implementing to revive tourism in the country is the establishment of Covid-19 testing laboratories in prime destinations in the country.
“Many countries are putting up Covid-19 labs in their airports and prime destinations because they want to ensure that their tourists will be properly taken care of. At the same time, it protects the tourist and the local community,” Alabado said.
The department, in partnership with the private sector, was able to establish a testing facility in Boracay.
“The DOT is [also] facilitating the donation of an RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) machine and RNA extractor for Covid-19 testing in Davao City,” Alabado said, adding that they are coordinating with the local government unit (LGU) of Davao City and the Department of Health for the location of the testing facility.
He said based on their timeline, the Covid-19 lab in Davao City may be operational in two months.
“With testing centers in Boracay and Davao, consumer confidence is expected to rise in these destinations. Hopefully, translating in a quicker than expected recovery period,” Alabado said.
Aside from the two destinations, Alabado said they are also looking at putting up testing laboratories in Palawan, Siargao, Bohol and Baguio City.
Alabado also pointed out that the decision to open a destination shall be a shared responsibility of the LGU, the private stakeholders, and the community themselves with the DOT acting as the facilitator.
“Once that the different LGUs are welcoming the tourists in their areas, once they are confident enough that they have the necessary infrastructure and services to control Covid-19 and the arrivals of our domestic tourists, then we are seeing that this will be the key towards the recovery of the Philippine tourism industry,” he said.
Being the hardest-hit industry amid the pandemic, DOT is hoping that its efforts to revive tourism by banking on domestic tourists will help turn the tide.
“In the slow but sure approach advocated by DOT, we are looking at opening tourism spots in phases,” Alabado said.