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Tourism in the Era of Social Distancing

By AA PATAWARAN
Artwork OTEPH ANTIPOLO

Screen Shot 2020-05-01 at 9.24.11 PM

Even now, the love for travel remains as strong as ever with people sharing their old travel photos and their bucket lists once travel restrictions have been lifted.

“We are in a challenging but hopeful situation that brings out the best of us,” says Berna Romulo Puyat, secretary of the Department of Tourism. Although travel in most cases has been canceled, with most of us unable to imagine the next time we could be in a crowded bus or train or airplane, she has been busier than ever. “Our tourism industry has never experienced a crisis with such global impact and for a long period of time,” says Berna who, even as she was holed up in her bedroom for 14 days due to contact with a Covid-19 positive colleague in March, has no time to be lonely, get bored, or feel hopeless. All her energy is devoted to navigating the twists and turns of this global crisis to make sure she, the industry, and the Filipino people will arrive at the end with everything it takes to embrace and thrive in the new normal.

You have had to self-quarantine due to exposure. What was that like?
I was nervous, but since I was asymptomatic, I was still fully capable of working from home. For one, I was busy crafting the Tourism Response and Recovery Program (TRRP) with our industry stakeholders and meeting with the various agencies of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the next steps. We also had to find ways to bring home our stranded tourists. So far, we’ve assisted more than 22,000 of them. We’re also faced with the challenge of securing thousands of hotel rooms for repatriated OFWs and essential workers by coordinating with accommodation establishment owners and making sure they adhere to the protocols set by the DOH.

Tourism is among the most affected industries. What is your greatest challenge?
Nobody was prepared for this. Tourism depends on mass travel, on face-to-face interactions, on rich physical experiences. In the next year or so, the industry is going to have to rethink what tourism will mean in the era of social distancing.
We have come to terms with the fact that travel to the Philippines will significantly decrease this year as a result of the pandemic.
We took the opportunity to provide our tourism stakeholders with free “webinars” to prepare and inform them of the possible travel trends that will arise as a result of the pandemic, and to further strengthen our distinctive Filipino brand of service.
If you’ve seen the viral pictures and videos of our tourist spots during community quarantine, you can see we’ve given our destinations a time to heal.
We’ve been preparing our stakeholders to hit the ground running once this is over, providing free online seminars and training sessions and providing funding for the necessary changes in their systems and processes. We’d like to see as many of them being able to open their businesses or services as soon as possible, with the health and safety measures that are part of the “new normal” already in place.
There’s something I saw on social media that I really liked. It was a call for people to support independent, neighborhood, or family-owned businesses. They will need our help after foregoing nearly two months of revenue.

When this is over, what do you see yourself doing first?
It’s so hard to pick, so probably one of these: I would like to hear Mass and say a prayer of thanks at my parish, visit my parents and the rest of my immediate family, have a meal at my favorite restaurant with my dearest friends, and personally thank the members of my entire DOT team who have been doing a phenomenal job.
Of course, as fiesta-loving Filipinos, many will go out of their way to celebrate after this, whether it’s having a drink after the long alcohol ban or going out of town with the family for that much delayed summer vacation. My word of advice for them is this: Act as if the threat of Covid is still around. Avoid big crowds and continue practicing the ritual of washing your hands frequently. Stay safe, always.

When there’s a vaccine at last, how do you imagine people reactivating their love of travel?
We are predicting that standards for safety and sanitation will be a big consideration by tourists when picking a destination. Expect limitations in terms of the number of people allowed on board various modes of transportation, at restaurants, and even at our tourist spots.
In terms of promotion, we are exploring platforms to enable digital B2B engagements with tourism partners abroad for the Philippines to remain a key destination in mind in spite of the travel restrictions. Our foreign offices are in constant communication with their travel partners and respective media networks.
We also launched a global campaign called “Wake Up in the Philippines” to fulfill the wanderlust of foreign travelers as they await the lifting of travel restrictions with the aim of them considering the Philippines in their future travels.

Any words for the stakeholders of Philippine tourism?
Our airline industry has been affected so much during this pandemic due to the low demand as well as the travel restrictions. Despite this setback, we thank them for having the initiative to actively provide sweeper flights as well as chartered flights for our stranded passengers.
In the next few months, the airlines will test the market to reestablish the air linkages between islands and, further ahead, connect the tourist markets abroad to the Philippines. As we embrace the new normal, we hope our airlines will continue to innovate as well as support our country’s tourism thrusts toward sustainability and ensuring the health and safety of our travelers.
Let us remain hopeful and adapt quickly to this new environment, prioritizing the safety of our customers as we will be measured by this in the future. Make use of the digital platform, now more than ever, to expand your businesses as people are now watching movies, undergoing some medical procedures, and ordering food from the comfort of their own homes.
Our different tourism products such as diving, farm tourism, health and wellness, educational tourism are currently conducting research and consultations with respective stakeholders in order to redesign their new ways of working that are at par with internationally accepted practices in relation to the post-Covid phase.  Re-training of our frontlines as well as tourism workers on these new policies will be implemented to prepare us for the eventual return of our tourists.
I know how difficult this time is for communities that depend on tourism. Since domestic travel will resume ahead of international travel, we will recover slowly and carefully as our LGUs lift their travel restrictions at a time they see fit.
Here at DOT, we assure our stakeholders that policies and programs are in place to help you bounce back and recover once travel restrictions have been lifted. We will give assistance to critically-impacted tourism enterprises, such as incentives for domestic tourism, grants for special travel packages, and interest-free loans or loan guarantees with terms of up to five years for business improvements and rehabilitation.

Who would you consider the heroes of Philippine tourism right now in the middle of the crisis?
In addition to our medical and security frontliners and our essential workers, I am deeply grateful to the employees of the DOT, who have been continuously working throughout this crisis. Whether they comprise a skeleton crew at the front offices or man the 24-hour online communications team in their own homes, the DOT staff have been providing assistance to thousands of stranded and distressed travelers around the country. Tourists may be leaving in less than ideal circumstances, but they will remember that Filipino hospitality never wavered.

From your personal standpoint, what is the lesson of Covid-19 for our generation?
We’re still learning. We’ve learned that when we take our foot off the pedal, the earth heals. We’ve learned to always be prepared in times of emergency, to save and to recognize what things are truly essential, and to do away with those that are superficial. We’ve also learned that people want to do their part and will make great sacrifices to make others’ lives better. We need to put all these lessons together to create a future that is sustainable, equitable, and much more resilient.

 


Source: Manila Bulletin (https://lifestyle.mb.com.ph/2020/05/01/tourism-in-the-era-of-social-distancing/)

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