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Is It Really Safe to Travel During the Pandemic?
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, in 2019, the tourism industry’s contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 12.7%, equivalent to ₱2.48 trillion—over 10% higher than that of the previous year. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, this was reduced to more than half at only 5.4%. In February this year, Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said that 4.8 Filipinos working in the tourism sector were affected by the pandemic.
But now that restrictions are easing in most parts of the country, DOT is reviving the country’s tourism. “One advantage in the Philippines is that we have a wide domestic tourism base,” shared DOT Usec. Benito Bengzon Jr. in a mix of Filipino and English during a Panayam sa Panahon TV interview. “We don’t solely depend on foreign visitors. Filipinos themselves can help boost our economy. So, we call on our fellow Filipinos to support the reopening of travel destinations while following health and safety protocols.”
Wearing a face mask and face shield is a must during traveling. (photo by Lorna Mamaril)
How you can travel during the pandemic
As the Department of Health (DOH) continues to record daily new cases by the thousands, and with the emergence of deadlier and more transmissible variants, is it really safe to travel during this time? Usec. Bengzon assured the public that DOT consulted with DOH before restarting the travel industry. “We also listened to the pleas of those who lost their jobs—and this is one of the reasons why we’re doing this. We made sure that the 2reopened destinations are in areas which have contained COVID-19, or have low case counts. All these tourism enterprises have health and safety protocols—not only in their accommodations, but also among tour operators and in tour buses, restaurants, and convention facilities.”
According to Usec. Bengzon, the government also made traveling more convenient with the following initiatives:
- Uniform travel requirements
Because travelers complained about different travel requirements from local government units (LGUs), the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) streamlined the protocols. Right now, the only requirement is a negative RT-PCR test. But because situations may change any time, www.philippines.travel provides a list of destinations, their quarantine statuses and particular travel requirements. As of writing, Baguio City welcomes fully vaccinated tourists without the COVID-19 test. “Areas under MGCQ (modified general community quarantine) or GCQ (general community quarantine) are allowed to open their destinations, but if their LGUs don’t want to accept tourists, then that is something we respect,” said Usec. Bengzon.
- Subsidized RT-PCR tests for local tourists
The DOH’s advisory on the price range of RT-PCR testing is a maximum price cap of ₱5,000 for private laboratories, and ₱3,800 for public laboratories. Since this is a must before traveling, the DOT released ₱35.17 million this year to fund 50% of the testing cost for domestic travelers who have confirmed round-trip transportation tickets and a booking confirmation with a DOT-accredited accommodation establishment. Done in partnership with the Philippine General Hospital and the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, Filipino tourists can apply for the subsidy program through this website.
- No age restriction
Filipino of all ages are now allowed to travel. “Before, those below 18 and over 65 years old weren’t allowed to travel,” recalled Usec. Bengzon. “We had to adjust because we all know that when Filipinos travel, they bring the whole family.” Still, all members including infants are required to undergo RT-PCR testing.
- Lessened quarantine period for those entering the Philippines
Recently, the IATF announced that fully vaccinated travelers from “green” countries entering the Philippines now have a lessened quarantine period of 7 days from the previously required 10 days. “Green” countries are “classified by the DOH as low-risk countries or jurisdictions based on disease incidence rate.” Currently, the 57 countries and jurisdictions include:
Antigua and Barbuda
The British Virgin Islands
Cote d’ Ivoire (Ivory Coast)
Isle of Man
Northern Mariana Islands
Saint Kitts and Nevis
Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Turks and Caicos Islands (UK)
IATF now allows children below 18 years old to travel. (Photo by Blueberrie Recto)
Ensuring travel safety
Based on a DOT survey conducted last year, Usec. Bengzon stated that the top destinations Filipinos want to visit when restrictions eased were Boracay and Palawan. But top results also included road trip and staycation destinations. Now that leisure travel is allowed, Usec. Bengzon offered these safety tips:
- Follow minimum public health standards.
“We say this over and over, but this is the most important. We should comply by wearing our face masks and face shields, and by practicing frequent handwashing and physical distancing.” In turn, tourism establishments should also follow strict health and safety protocols. “These protocols were actually crafted by the Department of Tourism,” shared Bengzon. “Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat instructed us to craft safety protocols to ensure everyone’s safety—from tourists and tourism employees to local communities.”
- Conduct transactions online.
To minimize face-to-face contact, accommodations encourage online transactions such as reservation and registration. To reduce the risk of infections, front desks and restaurants are equipped with glass or acrylic partitions. Hotels also limit the number of occupants in a room, depending on its size.
- Allot enough time for planning your trip.
Because traveling during the pandemic requires additional logistics, Usec. Bengzon advised giving yourself enough time to prepare. “If there’s one good thing that came from this pandemic, it’s that we’ve become disciplined in doing our research and making plans. Read up on your destination and its travel requirements. Use technology to your advantage when getting information and making reservations. When moving around the different destinations, cooperate and be patient.”
Helping the travel industry
Technology has also helped travel agency owner, John Paull Belleca, in pivoting his business called Travelleca. “Since the pandemic, we shifted to conducting our business online for the safety of our employees and clients. The good thing about that was we were able to provide 24/7 services, and even grow our market.” Aside from preparing itineraries, Travelleca also assists in securing travel requirements such as swab testing and passport renewals.
But despite the ease in restrictions, Belleca confessed that his business has yet to fully recover. For struggling travel agencies like his, Usec. Bengzon said that the DOT has prepared a 6-billion peso budget to be used by tourism enterprises for their capital loans. “The terms and conditions are very friendly. The loans don’t require collateral or interest. Businesses only need to pay a service fee.” The loan period is up to 4 years, with a grace period of up to 2 years. “For those who lost their jobs related to tourism, we have a program with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), which allotted ₱3 billion for cash assistance.”
Right now, the DOT continues its training of tourism frontliners on the Filipino brand of hospitality, and helping destinations in their branding, marketing, and events using virtual platforms.
Passport assistance services help travel agencies like Travelleca stay afloat during the pandemic. (photo from Travelleca’s Facebook page)
Is it really safe to travel during the pandemic?
Though pandemic travel still has its risks, Usec. Bengzon believes that it is matter of balancing health and safety protocols with the need to restart an industry that provides millions of jobs to Filipinos. “We know that tourism significantly contributes to our economy. If we cooperate, and with patience and understanding, we’re confident that we can revive our country’s travel industry.”
Still, the ball is in the Filipinos’ court. Whether they choose to travel or not depends on their risk appetite—as well as the country’s pandemic recovery. As Belleca put it, “I think herd immunity is also one of the keys in reviving tourism. This will also ease our fellow Filipinos’ fear of COVID-19.”
Watch the full the interview here.
Panayam sa Panahon TV airs every Tuesday at 5 p.m. on Panahon TV’s Facebook page.