Critical catch up

Less than two years after a six-month closure to clean up the island, Boracay is facing its next challenge with Covid-19. How will tourism players respond?

The pandemic has disrupted the island’s rehabilitation initiative

How Boracay navigates the double whammy of temporary closure in 2018 as well as her current lockdown will determine the speed at which she can rebound from the pandemic.
While tourism on the island has recovered well from the unprecedented six-month closure in 2018 as part of its rehabilitation programme, inbound arrivals started going downhill in February and March this year as the Philippines banned tourists from China and parts of South Korea. The two countries are Boracay’s biggest tourism source markets.

The pandemic has disrupted the island’s rehabilitation initiative

Tourists trickled to 1,000 daily from the 5,600 daily average in 2019 and hotel occupancy nosedived to 20 per cent, according to Teody Espallardo, director of sales and marketing, Alta Briza Resort Boracay.

“(During the 2018 closure, we knew) Boracay would reopen eventually. (This time, it’s worse) with the loss of tourists from China and South Korea. We don’t know how things will end,” a source told TTG Asia before the lockdown.

Rehabilitation efforts, which began in 2018 due to the devastating effects tourism and mismanagement had on the island’s environment, lifted Boracay’s status as a destination. With a carrying capacity imposed on its expanse of clean beaches and seas, these spaces became quieter and more peaceful.

However, the lockdown on March 23 put the brakes on the island’s last phase of rehabilitation, which involves mainly road infrastructure.

Tourism undersecretary Art Boncato Jr said the Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force that is managing the island’s affairs was meant to have been disbanded in April 2020 – two years after its inception.

The task force, however, has yet to hit certain milestones, said Boncato, including the road infrastructure project – which he claimed was on track. It must reach these targets before it can be dissolved and Boracay’s management can be handed back to the local government.

How that is going to pan out is uncertain, what with the infrastructure work currently at a standstill. In all likehood, the task force’s life will be extended.

As the Philippines’ tourism crown jewel, Boracay is expected to eventually rebound. The crux of the matter lies in when recovery will come, given that the current crisis is global.
Bill Barnett, managing director, hospitality consultancy company C9 Hotelworks, listed the factors that would help in the island’s rebound.

“Philippines has (a relatively strong) domestic market. We expect her to have a stronger recovery than most countries in the region. Boracay will be a (beneficiary),” he remarked.
He also expects China to be the foreign source market to lead recovery when it comes to international arrivals. This will help Boracay’s visitor numbers rebound.

In the meantime, the Covid-19 crisis has several lessons for Boracay, including the need for the major tourist destination to have adequate health and safety facilities. It has only one hospital – Ciriaco Tirol Hospital.

The facility was shut down on March 23, after one frontline medical worker tested positive for the virus, and 18 of his close contacts had to be quarantined for 14 days.

This meant that locals, tourists with existing bookings, and long-stay guests who chose to remain in the country have had to head to private clinics and other hospitals in the province for medical care.

Besides responding to the need for such crucial facilities, Boracay will have to adapt to new travellers’ concerns post-crisis. This will impact hotel operations in terms of receiving business event groups, providing buffets, ensuring hotel-wide hygiene, and many other areas, said Barnett.

He added that the crisis also brought home the need for diversification. The island will need to reduce its reliance on a few segments or geographical sources going forward, so it will be less vulnerable in tough times.

Jojo Clemente, president, Tourism Congress of the Philippines, said other destinations, not just Boracay, are facing the same difficulties.

Clemente estimated that clear signs of a rebound will occur in 2021 at the earliest. “Without a vaccine, no one will travel. Returning to the numbers prior to Covid-19 will be a challenge, (and) I don’t see that (happening) in one or two years,” he said.

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