Domestic demand remains Philippine tourism’s silver lining in the pandemic’s wake, which has given destinations plagued by overtourism time to recover and rethink their tourism policies.
Domestic tourism has been the saving grace in the Philippines’ post-pandemic travel recovery, given its estimated 110 million population – the second-largest in South-east Asia – who are eager to travel.
This goldmine is an anchor of hope in dire times like this when international tourism dries up.
Consider this: In 2019, the Philippines recorded a whopping 109.75 million domestic trips that generated 3.14 trillion pesos (US$62.7 billion) in tourism revenue, dwarfing the US$9.5 billion in foreign exchange receipts from 8.26 million foreign arrivals.
It plunged to 24.35 million domestic trips in 2020, stymied and stunted by pandemic lockdowns starting March of that year.
“Bringing in just half of the 2019 domestic tourism revenue would be “more than enough” for tourism to recover, quipped Philippine Tour Operators Association (Philtoa) president, Cesar Cruz.
Tourism is already beginning to coast along. “It’s still not as great, but moving, especially due to the fact that there are areas with fully vaccinated workers and population,” said Aileen Clemente, chairman and president, Rajah Travel Corp.
Concurring, Hotel Sales and Marketing Association (HSMA) chair, Margie Munsayac, observed that “local government units (LGUs) are slowly opening borders, restrictions are easing, and new products are being offered in each LGUs – and these make Filipinos consider exploring the various attractions of the Philippines once again”.
“We believe our patriotism will kick in. Filipinos will support local tourism which drives economic activities as well as employment in the tourism industry,” Munsayac shared.
Prospects are indeed sanguine to the extent that since several months ago, travel consultants have started offering tour packages locally and abroad. One of them, Ritchie Tuano, head of Asiareps Travel, has formed a consortium with seven other travel agencies to sell attractive packages in collaboration with airline partners, hotels and local tour operators to “jumpstart tourism”.
“We provide travellers well-priced packages as much as 30 per cent off, while helping destinations slowly rebuild their business,” Tuano said.
While the Omicron variant has prompted the country to delay the reopening of its international borders, initially targeted for December 2021, hotels in destinations like metro Manila and nearby Tagaytay have reported a pick up in domestic bookings and reservations, ahead of the peak holiday season.
A good sign is that HSMA’s September Online Sale “had doubled its 2022 sales compared to 2021, with metro Manila, Tagaytay, Boracay, Bohol and Cebu (emerging) as top preferred destinations,” Munsayac said, adding that triple the number of vouchers were sold as dining and banquet offers were also up for sale in addition to accommodation.
Industry recovery has also been buoyed by balikbayans or returning Filipinos residing abroad – mainly from the US, which is the country’s third biggest source market – who escape winter to visit relatives and friends back home. Another boon for the sector are overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who go on regular home visits, bringing friends and colleagues from their country base.
Returning and departing OFWs have proven a lifeline for quarantine hotels which would otherwise have scant revenue amid the pandemic.
As well, the pause in tourism gave overcrowded destinations including Boracay some much-needed rest and regeneration. Certainly, the carrying capacity for Boracay and other destinations will have to be implemented as part of the safe travel protocols drawn up by the Department of Tourism (DoT) and the destinations’ respective LGUs.
Clemente said that “because of the lockdowns, one thing that badly needed attention is research. A lot of this is happening now, as well as taking stock of tourism asset inventory, measuring sustainability and carrying capacity”.
The lull in travel was also an opportune time to build and improve infrastructure, among them the new high-tech terminal of Clark International Airport, Camiguin’s domestic airport, and the soft opening of luxe Hotel Okura Manila.
This also paves the way to enhancing Philippine tourism products and developing new ones to adapt to changing traveller preferences. A DoT domestic travel survey showed that travellers favour outdoor spaces and activities, leaning towards eco-tourism, rural and farm tourism.
Clemente saw further rural developments that are open air – a trend which she predicts will grow, alongside the spread of greater utilisation of the country’s coastlines for tours.
She expressed hope that operators will develop more farm tours which promote farm produce that are indigenous to the Philippines and cannot be found anywhere else.
Along this line, Cruz said Philtoa has created several tour packages with outdoor activities; and developed farm, nature-based and gastronomy tour packages, mostly interzonal, within the island of Luzon.
Alas, just as the Philippines’ tourism recovery is gaining momentum, the industry faces yet another blow, with typhoon Odette thwarting travel rebound in parts of the country.
But if there’s one thing the pandemic has shed light on, it is the resiliency of the tourism industry. Looking ahead, the Philippines plans to build a more sustainable and resilient tourism economy.
Tourism secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said the Philippines has already “shifted to high-value, low-impact, low-density travel that offers more meaningful and immersive experiences between a tourist and the local communities”.
Romulo-Puyat plans to continue empowering rural communities in tandem with LGUs to manage their own attractions while practising responsible and sustainable tourism.
The pandemic has taught us that “it is no longer enough to have the best destinations because we must also ensure first and foremost that they are safe”, she said, adding that the country’s tourism recovery plan is anchored on sustainability which the DoT has long advocated for.
She opined: “What good is spurring recovery when it benefits us only short-term?… The socio-economic benefits must be enjoyed also by future generations.”