By Buddy Recio
With the China travel ban in place and a looming South Korea travel ban to be determined within 48 hours, the Philippines Department of Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat faces a dilemma of playing catch up in case a loss of the country’s two top tourist arrivals happen. Tourists to and from China and its provinces Hong Kong and Macau were banned until the end of March upon recommendation of the Department of Health (DOH) while travelers coming from the North Gyeongsang province in South Korea were likewise banned from entering the Philippines starting tomorrow, February 27. A risk assessment will be conducted within 48 hours to check if an expanded or, worse, the total ban will be imposed.
“It is one of the most difficult decisions to make because, and I said that we signed our tourism agreement with Korea last November, their President (Moon Jae-in) will come in July for a state visit, and they are our number one tourists. Banning all of Korea until March will cost us 9 billion pesos, not including lost revenue from China (with Macau and HK). I suggested maybe we can copy the Singapore strategy of banning only Daegu and Cheongdo. I added maybe it will also be useless because the South Korean government itself has already stopped flights coming from Daegu. In addition to that, Koreans themselves are canceling flights from other cities on their own,” Puyat related to members of PATA during its first General Business Assembly.
South Korea has been a perennial topnotcher in arrivals. Last year there were 1.98 million tourists with China not far behind with 1.74 million arrivals, both countries totaling 45 percent of the total international tourists that visited the Philippines.
Presently, the tourism industry is reeling from the effects of Covid-19. Cancellations are hurting airlines, travel agents, tour operators, hotels, and resorts. It is expected that a trickle-down effect will also be felt by related concerns like tour guides, transportation providers, souvenir shops, ESL schools, even vendors.
“We had a two-hour heated debate because I have to look after our industry and there was no one in the industry who can comment on whether it should be a total ban or not. They are our good friends, they are important to us and they are responsible because they even quarantined themselves. Those I talked to were not keen on visiting at this time. We have to balance safety and the economy, and our relationship with them,” she imparted.
Considering the fact that it is not within the mandate of DOT to decide on health and immigration issues as shown by the decision to ban China (enforced)and Taiwan (later rescinded) wherein Secretary Puyat was not consulted, she maintains that it is her responsibility to make her counterparts in the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases the ill effects of bans to tourism. In a short interview with Secretary Puyat by this writer, she revealed that she is pushing for no total ban, a decision that will be reached in a second meeting on Friday.
“We will discuss again, under present conditions then, if it becomes better or worse. I am confident that the protocols of South Korea will speak for themselves. We are praying that next days’ conditions will not result in a total ban.”