How COVID-19 Is Affecting the Tourism Industry in the Philippines

The past few months have seen a number of unprecedented changes in nearly every aspect of our lives. The ways we socialize, eat, go to work, travel, and more are all nearly unrecognizable when compared to our lifestyles six months ago, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface. The effects of the global pandemic COVID-19 are far reaching, and are likely to be felt years and years into the future.

We’ve touched on the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic in a previous article titled ‘The Worst Pandemics to Ever Hit the Philippines’. In that article, we gave a brief overview of the timeline of the pandemic in the Philippines. In the months since, COVID-19 has prompted a complete overhaul of Philippine society, which remains under the world’s longest lockdown as reported by The Telegraph.

While we struggle to comprehend the depths of the pandemic’s impact on the Philippine economy, lifestyle, and education, there are certain sectors that have been harder hit than others. One of these sectors is, predictably, travel and tourism. Since flights first began slowing down and then stopping completely at the beginning of 2020, the industry has had to completely restructure. Here’s a look at just how the Philippine tourism industry has changed, and what it could look like in the future.

Tourism in the Philippines

In order to truly understand the effects of COVID-19 on tourism Philippines, we must first take a look at what the industry was like before the pandemic.

Firstly, the country has an incredibly strategic location in the tropics of Southeast Asia, as well as a rich culture and history. Due to these and many other factors, the Philippines has long been considered a tourism hub.

The tourism industry has long been a backbone of the Philippine economy. In fact, it remains one of the single biggest contributors to the country’s GDP. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, Philippine tourism comprised a whopping 12.7% of the GDP in 2018.

The Philippines’ tourism background is rich and diverse, with a range of different attractions for different kinds of travelers. The country is a hotspot for different kinds of tourism, including medical tourism Philippines, cultural tourism, eco tourism, and more.

Tourism development in the country is incredibly important. It includes well-funded and popular campaigns such as Its More Fun in the Philippines, spearheaded by the Department of Tourism Philippines.

The center of travel and tourism Philippines is the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), which hosts up to 30 local and international airlines. This includes the flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL), which has a fleet of 61 registered aircraft as of February 2020.

Tourism in Enhanced Community Quarantine

The first cases of local transmission of COVID-19 in the Philippines were first confirmed in late February to early March 2020. Because of this, the Philippine government instituted preventive measures in order to reduce the chances of transmission in the country.

The most major of these efforts was the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) which began in Metro Manila on March 14 before extending nationwide. The ECQ saw reduced movements in both residential and industrial sectors of the economy. Business, leisure, travel, and other activities were markedly reduced, and free movement was restricted to the quarantine pass holders of each household.

Chief among the sectors affected was the travel and tourism sector. Restricted movements and reduced number of flights for both Philippines airlines and international ones meant that even local travel was next to impossible during ECQ. Tourism Philippines slowed down to a near stop, during what was ordinarily the most popular Filipino travel period in the year.

Major tourism hubs like Boracay and Camiguin banned domestic and foreign visits, and resort chains and other related businesses closed down. Boracay hotels like the Hennan Group of Resorts sent most of their staff home in preparation for what was at the time a month-long lockdown.

As the lockdown continued, however, a quick recovery for the tourism industry seemed less and less likely. The Philippines was projected to lose at least Php 42.9 billion in travel and tourism revenues from February to April 2020 alone. This was a staggering blow for the industry, especially given that those months are often the busiest of the year for local tourism.

The Philippines isn’t the only country to suffer losses in the tourism industry. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) predicts a decline of up to 78% in international tourism arrivals for the year. The effects of this on the industry have been described as “catastrophic,” especially given the reliance of smaller destinations on revenues from local tourism.

The Philippines’ Q1 tourism revenues dipped by about 35% due to the pandemic, and further losses are likely as the lockdowns stretch out. While the extension of ECQ into General Community Quarantine (GCQ) was a sigh of relief for some sectors and industries, tourism and travel have not fared as well.

In order to offset the industry’s struggles, The Department of Tourism has begun eyeing “travel bubbles”. These travel bubbles are basically relaxed restrictions for tourists from virus-free countries. This proposed measure would allow these tourists to travel directly to tourist hotspots in the Philippines that have their own international airports. However, the success of these travel bubbles or travel corridors is contingent on the country’s ability to contain the spread of the virus.

The New Normal

While the status of tourism in the Philippines seems all doom and gloom, it might not be impossible for the sector to make a comeback. Considering travel COVID-19, government institutions have prepared advice and guidelines in order to safely transition to what is being called a “New Normal” of travel and tourism.

The DOT predicts that domestic tourism will be key in leading the recovery of the Philippines’ ailing tourism industry in 2020. The Department released a recent report entitled ‘Philippine Travel Survey: Insights on Filipino Travel Behavior Post-COVID 19’, which was conducted during May 2020.

The report, detailing the responses of over 12,000 respondents all over the country, discussed the following:

  1. Domestic leisure travel would lead Philippine tourism recovery
  2. Travelers expected a reduction in income and travel budget
  3. Health and safety remain a primary concern of Filipino travelers
  4. Travelers would much prefer reduced-contact travel once restrictions are lifted
  5. Travelers prefer online and digital channels, and
  6. Travelers plan to travel closer to home

With progress on a vaccine taking some time, health and safety will be one of the primary concerns of local and international travelers. Because trust and concern in the industry is essential, local tourist hubs will need to take concrete steps in order to ensure that they are able to meet travelers’ needs.

This new normal, declared Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat in May 2020, would involve newer dimensions to safety. These dimensions include improved health security standards for both tourists and personnel. Retraining of personnel to accommodate health standards and concerns, regular disinfection of accommodations, and widespread institution of online systems to reduce contact, are all possible steps moving forward.

Another angle that local tourism could possibly take in a post-COVID-19 world would be that of eco tourism. TTG Asia writes on the possibilities of eco tourism in the near future, especially given travelers’ unease over crowded spaces. Minor Hotels Group Director of Sustainability and Conservation John Roberts, interviewed in the article, says that outdoor-centric activities in safer, low-risk environments already put eco tourism at an advantage.

Eco tourism is a “different way of looking” at traditional tourism, and can serve as the blueprint for the new normal in the tourism industry in the Philippines. Many eco tourism activities, such as hiking, involve remote areas where the risk of infection is drastically reduced.

Roberts also urged for industry players to begin training in the principles and procedures used in eco tourism as early as now. The domestic market is likely to recover ahead of the international market, and can be a particularly bright spot in the industry’s resurgence if handled correctly.

Given the country’s rich biodiversity and range of ecological spots, a brighter future for the Philippines’ travel and tourism industry may not be so far off. As industries and societies all around the world begin to make adjustments to a future post-COVID-19, the local tourism industry may be well poised to serve as a banner example for other countries to follow. However, the process will need careful planning and consideration. Still, many in the industry are hopeful that it will one day be more fun in the Philippines once again.