(Part 1)

            Despite the continuous increase in the COVID-19 infection rate and the possibility of future surges of even more virulent variants of the disease, we have to convince our leaders in both the public and private sectors to allow domestic tourism more leeway to recover.  Before the pandemic, there were estimates of the Department of Tourism that some 60 to 70 million middle-class Filipinos were traveling from their respective homes to other destinations within the Archipelago, either within the same island in which they resided or to other islands.  Just to cite the most common example of domestic tourism in which residents in the National Capital Region engaged, even during the height of the pandemic, it was impossible to stop the restless people of Metro Manila to troop to the beaches of Batangas, such as those in Matuod, Matabungkay, San Juan and Puenta Fuego.  The same can be said of the urban residents of other cities like Cebu, Davao, and Cagayan de Oro.    As Tourism Undersecretary Benito Bengzon Jr. said in a forum, the Philippines has a large domestic tourism base.  Before  the pandemic, there were about 110 million annual domestic trips that generated revenues five times larger than those from in-bound tourism.  It is, therefore, realistic to expect that domestic tourism can recover much faster than foreign tourism.  It will be domestic tourism that can lead to the reopening of enterprises and the bringing back of livelihood, especially of MSMEs, at the community level.

            There is no question that after almost two years of the strictest lockdowns anywhere in the world, Filipinos—who are naturally outdoor people—are literally climbing up walls and have a huge pent-up demand for travel. In fact, for the lower-middle income consumers, even just the opportunity to bring their entire families to the malls can already be a part of domestic tourism.  These individuals do “malling” as part of spending their leisure time and actually do only a minimum of shopping, mostly taking snacks in their favorite fastfood restaurants.  This is where the recommendation of the business community, especially in Metro Manila, to implement what they call the “bakuna bubble” comes in.  Malls in the National Capital Region and other major urban conglomerates around the country should be allowed to permit both vaccinated and unvaccinated persons to enter, while individual shops within the malls—such as restaurants, cafes, salons, gyms, barber shops, etc.—will implement the “bakuna bubble”, wherein a vaccination card, or, in the case of unvaccinated persons, a negative antigen or RT-PCR test result, must be presented before they can enter the establishments within the malls. 

            I am aware of the fact that even vaccinated people can still get infected and that they can infect other people.  I am also aware of the fact that there is a very high rate of recovery and most of the recent infections are moderate in nature.  We have to already accept the fact that COVID-19 will be endemic to our society and that we have to be ready to treat it as an ordinary flu.  We have given the highest priority to health issues rather than to the economy long enough.  By doing so, we have forgotten that by giving short shrift to the catastrophic effects of the lockdowns on poverty and unemployment, we actually also have been harming the health of the population through ways other than the  Corona virus.  Undernourishment, other diseases that could not be attended to, and all types of mental disorder or depression have resulted from the prolonged lockdowns.  It is about time that we shift the balance towards reenergizing the economy, especially as we approach the last quarter when there will be conditions favorable to a big increase in consumer spending because of the Christmas atmosphere that will coincide with huge remittances from the OFWS to their relatives at home and the election-related spending.  Despite the risks of having our hospitals overwhelmed with patients, I think we should implement the “bakuna bubble” in time for the Christmas season, which actually already has begun in September and will intensify as we move towards the end of the year.   

            This coming Christmas season will be the perfect time to jump start domestic tourism.  In my view, we will have to depend on domestic travelers till way beyond 2023.  I don’t see foreign tourism recovering its pre-pandemic level till 2024.  We need, however, to revitalize tourism because it accounts for 12 percent of our GDP and 14 percent of our total employment. As early as September of last year, Secretary Bernadette Puyat already reported that a local survey showed that 77 percent of Filipino respondents noted that they are still willing to travel for leisure even in the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine.   Of this number, 48 percent were willing to travel within six months from the lifting of travel restrictions.  Top travel activities included road trips (especially with the significant improvements resulting from the Build, Build, Build, program of the Government), “staycations” and going to the beach (some favorites are those in Batangas, La Union, Siargao and Panglao).   These results show that Filipinos are willing to take individual responsibility in assuming the risks of being infected by COVID.  They are aware of all the health protocols such as regular sanitation, passenger health screening, and limitations of visitor capacity in the establishments related to the hospitality industry.   This willingness to take risks will actually be enhanced by the adoption of the “bakuna bubble” because only those who are vaccinated or can demonstrate a negative result of an anti-gen test will be allowed to enter the establishments.

            In applying the Bakuna Bubble approach, we should prioritize those destinations that are most popular among domestic tourists.  As already evidenced by the experiences of numerous domestic tourists from the Metro Manila region, beach tourism is the major tourist draw.  We should encourage the LGUs responsible for these sites to prioritize the use of the funds that they will receive under the Mandanas ruling in making these beaches major parts of the Bakuna Bubbles.  Among these most popular beaches and diving choices are Boracay, El Nido, Coron,Cebu, and Siargao. Other common beach places are in Samal, Cagayan, La Union, Pangasinan, Zambales, Batangas, Iloilo, Dumaguete, Camarines Sur and Zamboanga. As reported in Wikipedia. In 2018, Canadian-based travel agency Flight Network listed Hidden Beach in Palawan as No. 1 as the best beach in all of Asia.  This beach was also cited by Travel+Leisure as among the 13 places tosee the bluest water in the world.  Other beaches ranked from the Philippines were Guyam White Sand in Siargao (No.13),  Palaui Beach in Cagayan Valley (No 22), Caramoan Island Beach in Camarines Sur (No.29), Dahican Beach in Mati, Davao Oriental (No.41), Gumasa Beach in Sarangani (No.45), Alona Beach in Panglao, Bohol (No. 46), Kalanggaman Island in Cebu (No. 49) and Paliton Beach in Siquijor (No.50).   The sooner these beaches can become bakuna bubbles through the efforts of both the Department of Tourism and the respective LGUs, the more prepared they will be not only for domestic tourism in the short run but also for the foreign tourists when they start to come in big numbers in 2024 when the world shall have put the pandemic under reasonable control.

            The focus for vaccination in these sites should be the tourism workers themselves.  The model could be the City of Baguio, one of the most popular tourism destinations in the whole island of Luzon.  Last September 2,  The Inquirer carried a story by Vincent Cabreza, reporting that the Department of Tourism (DOT) has targeted to inoculate all of the more than 31,000 tourism workers in the city within three days to improve tourist confidence and ensure the reopening of the local economy amid the pandemic.  Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat said that Baguio was the first local government to reopen its tourism industry in 2020,  despite quarantine restrictions due to the pandemic.  Baguio was the first to experiment with the concept of a bakuna bubble during last year’s Baguio Day celebration.  The City of Pines decided to accept a limited number of visitors under an experimental travel bubble or travel corridor with the  Ilocos Region.  The “Reef to Ridge” program allowed traveler from the provinces of La Union, Pangasinan, Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte to drive up to the city with their trips being regulated by a shared travel and health monitoring system.  In turn, Baguio residents were allowed to travel to the Ilocos region.  Mayor Magalong is aiming at 95 percent herd immunity, hopefully before the end of 2021.  Baguio’s experience should motivate other LGU heads of the leading tourism destinations to apply seriously the bakuna bubble concept.

            For their part, the private sector can also do much to reignite domestic travel.  For example, as reported in this paper by Michelle Ann P. Soliman, the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association (HSMA) in partnership with the Department of Tourism is sponsoring the Go Safe,  Go Travel:  Walk and Talk with Us, a project which will stream on Facebook and YouTube starting September until December and as a CNN TV special in November travel shows which will feature gastronomic and cultural adventures, staycations, beach and adventure destinations, and planning for milestone events when they will be allowed.  There will be featured hotels in some of the top tourism destinations like Boracay, Batangas and Manila for those domestic tourists from the provinces.  The online series will also be sharing the latest travel protocols with viewers as well as special offers from HSMA-member hotels and resorts. The information shared through this channel will encourage the potential guests towards the new normal of traveling.

            Given the potentials of domestic tourism for increasing incomes and employment in those localities which have the most attractive tourism assets like beaches, cool climates and cultural heritages, candidates for mayors and governors in these areas should be asked by voters in the elections of May 2022 what are their specific programs for reigniting tourism.  They should be asked about such plans as how to reach high levels of vaccination rates to  qualify for the bakuna bubbles, how to improve the local infrastructures such as farm to market roads, how to subsidize MSMEs so that they can be ready to service the expected increase in domestic tourists and how to continuously improve health and sanitation facilities to minimize the possibility of new surges of the pandemic.  These future LGU heads of communities most attractive for domestic tourism should emulate the leadership of Mayor Benjamin Magalong of Baguio City who has been most proactive in implementing measures to make this premier tourism destination as “bakuna bubble” ready as possible.  (To be continued).

Source: Manila Bulletin (https://mb.com.ph/2021/10/05/the-recovery-of-domestic-tourism/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-recovery-of-domestic-tourism)