Boracay Island in October. Cristina Menina/The Straits Times
Deaths, meltdowns, valor
Ever since the coronavirus spread to the Philippines early last year, sparking prolonged and painful lockdowns, FOCAP journalists have scoured the treacherous front lines of the pandemic to chronicle its cataclysmic impact in the country—from the menacing rise in infections and deaths to the crippling economic downturn.
Wearing their N95 masks, face shields and, at times, hazmat suits, they filed grim dispatches and harrowing images from hospitals, quarantine centers, morgues and other COVID-19 hotspots.
They also told stories of valor and hope.
White Sand, Murky Outlook
By Raul Dancel, The Straits Times
The world-famous Boracay beach escapade has reopened, but prospects for the tourism industry remains cloudy
On my way back to Manila from a brief trip to Boracay in October, I came across Ms Hui Min, 28, at the airport in Caticlan. She was headed back to Guangzhou, where she planned to ride out the Covid-19 pandemic.
She had been working in Boracay as a guide for what had been hordes of Chinese tourists from the mainland. Work dried up in March, when tourists were sent packing, the island’s borders were shut, and the Philippines went through one of the world’s longest and most brutal lockdowns to slow the virus’ spread.
Ms. Hui found herself stuck on the island. She managed to get out only after the government eased travel restrictions for non- Filipinos. She said she was glad to be heading home, but also sad to leave Boracay behind. “But I’ll definitely be back,” she said.
She said she is “100 percent certain” the Chinese will be back as well. “probably by October 2021”. “Boracay is not going away,” Ms. Hui said.
Yes, the Chinese will be back. The tourists will be back. Everyone will be back because Boracay is Boracay. The coronavirus is not taking away the powdery white beaches and cerulean waters. But it will be a long, hard slog for everyone, not just in Boracay.
Many quarantine restrictions are still in place.
In Boracay, guests are required to secure a negative RT-PCR test result 72 hours before they can board a plane. In other places like Ifugao, visitors must not only have themselves tested but must also go on a 14-day quarantine upon arriving. No one below 18 years old can travel.
There are signs of a pandemic still raging everywhere: masks, shields, hand sanitizers and thermal scanners. These are jacking up costs and taking the fun out of traveling. So for now, most of the country’s top attractions are making do with a smattering of dogged tourists.
Only 35 tourists arrived on Boracay’s opening day in October. From Dec 1 to 12, there were only less than 4,000, a far cry from pre-pandemic days when some 5,000 tourists would jam the airport and jetty in Caticlan each day.
But there are signs the tide is turning. Early forecasts painted a bleak picture for Philippine tourism. The Institute of International Finance estimated that tourism revenue would plunge to just 2.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2021 from 12.7 percent in 2019. That was before vaccines began to roll out of pharmacy labs.
Now, there are talks of “travel bubbles” and a recovery in the first half of 2021.
A survey by accounting firm PwC Philippines found about three in five tourism industry players expect things to turn around early in 2021.
Tourism officials are hoping that with tourist-bountiful nations like China, the United States and the European Union already securing billions of doses, the Philippines could probably re-open its borders to “revenge travelers” by the second half of 2021.
“We all have gone past the dark early days when we couldn’t even make a forecast. Now, there’s a sense of planning and preparation for the bounce back,” Sonia Lazo, managing director of Intas Destination Management Inc., told BusinessMirror.
But for now, everyone – from big hotel chains to the henna tattoo artist – will just have to dig deep and stretch their resources for a few more months for that big payday that should make up for the disaster that was 2020.
“We’ve been here and seen the worst nature can throw at us. We’ll still be here when this is all over. Where else are we supposed to go?” Mr Ben Pansuni, 62, a tourist bus driver who has been in Boracay all his life, said.