After two years in flux, Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat announced that the country will be opening its borders to international tourism. Starting April 1, the Philippines will be accepting business and leisure travelers from all countries regardless of whether they enter with a visa or visa-free. The only requirement is a vaccination certificate and a negative COVID RT-PCR test result taken 48 hours prior to arrival.
It will be recalled that in 2019, the tourism industry was growing at a galloping pace. We ended that year attracting 8.2 million foreign visitors and 110 million local travelers. Unfortunately, the momentum was broken and all this came to a halt when the pandemic struck. The good news is that the time under lockdown was not squandered. Under Secretary Berna’s baton, the Department of Tourism (DoT) worked to strengthen the value proposition of the Philippines while achieving greater sustainability of our tourist sites.
Health and safety is the top concern of tourists today, not only against COVID-19 but against all types of infectious pathogens. As early as May 2020, the DoT put together a handbook of health protocols with which tourism establishments were made to conform with. As of last month, 98% of all tourism workers are fully vaccinated and 247 hotels, resorts, restaurants, and spas were granted safety seals according to the strict health standards of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). Hundreds more are working towards WTTC certification.
In terms of tourism products, each region was made to develop “tourism circuits” composed of new sites, attractions, activities, and experiences. Camiguin, for instance, has added gastronomy, nature photography, and historical tours to its usual offering of beach, diving, and eco-tourism products. Other regions have added pilgrimages (religious tours), sports and adventure, rural and farms, and wellness tours to their offerings. New products under development include Habi (woven fabrics), Hilom (wellness), and Halal tours. All these are meant to add more dimensions to our regional tourism menu.
Training of tourism professionals has intensified in the last two years. A new generation of tour guides has been developed, each with their own field of specialty. Some are experts in history, others in flora and fauna, others in gastronomy, and so forth. The DoT is also training tour guides in various foreign languages.
The DoT aspires to elevate Filipino service and efficiency standards to a level that exceeds ASEAN standards. With that in mind, tour guides and service providers are now required to undergo training programs based on newly crafted modules. Certification is granted only after passing an examination.
Tourism-related businesses have been among the most adversely affected by the pandemic, many of whom faced the specter of bankruptcy. The DoT is working on overdrive to help tourism establishments recoup their losses. It all begins with bringing tourists back.
Awareness is key. During the height of the pandemic, the DoT embarked on an advertising campaign called “Wake up to the Philippines,” the goal of which was to keep the Philippines in the consciousness of potential visitors. Now that our borders have opened, several new advertising campaigns have been rolled out. Among them are “More Fun Awaits,” “Welcome Back,” and “It’s More Fun with You.” These campaigns are now playing in key tourism markets via print ads and below-the-line marketing.
Digital advertising is what propels tourism promotions today. The DoT, through the Tourism Promotions Board, has channeled the lion’s share of its advertising budget on digital platforms. Sleek and well produced ads are presently airing on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. All these are complimented by a new app called Travel Philippines. There, potential visitors can go on virtual tours (there are 16 virtual tours presently available), create their itineraries, and make bookings.
The Tourism Promotions Board, headed by Anthonette Velasco-Allones, is on an all-out campaign to attain our tourism numbers of 2019. Familiarization tours of travel influencers have resumed, as have public relations campaigns, participation in travel expositions, and promotion of sporting events and MICE. In fact, the Philippines will host the Global Summit of the World Travel & Tourism Council next month. In September, the Philippines will host the Travel Exchange Exposition.
So as not to be too dependent on traditional markets like the US, Japan, Korea, and China, new markets are being developed in the Middle East as well as Nordic and Mediterranean countries.
Ms. Allones estimates that the Philippines will attain the 2019 arrival figures by 2023. However, this can be accelerated if more direct flights to and from key destinations are arranged. Direct flights are the secret to the success of Bali and Phuket and the Philippines is in a position to do the same, what with numerous new airports built or rehabilitated in our islands. It’s a shame, however, that San Miguel has not yet made good its promised world-class airport in Caticlan. Cebu’s airport, however, is the best in the country today.
The drive towards sustainability continues. Sustainability is largely an infrastructure play and the DoT has been working closely with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Public Works and Highways to increase the carrying capacity of our tourism sites. Wastewater treatment plants, solid waste systems, and roads connecting ports to tourist destinations are the priority. The DoT has also been in close coordination with local government units to ensure that our natural and heritage sites are not overrun. So effective are the DoT’s sustainability programs that Thailand looks at it as a model.
After two painful years, tourism is finally open for business. We are happy that the DoT used the time under lockdown to strengthen the foundations of the industry. Thanks to the leadership of Secretary Romulo-Puyat, we can look forward to a fundamentally stronger industry as we move forward.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist