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Baby steps: Traversing tourism during the pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, many industries came to a standstill. The lockdown measures implemented to keep people safe had adverse effects on their livelihoods as well. Profits were lost, businesses were shut down, and workers were laid off. Nonetheless, some enterprises were able to adapt and remain flexible by implementing strict physical distancing protocols and shifting toward digital mediums to maintain a modicum of demand among their regulars.

That said, one might wonder how things are faring in industries like tourism, where there is no room for a digital transition as it heavily relies on people flocking in droves to visit places of interest. Tourist destinations like Boracay and Palawan have seen their visitor numbers dwindle due to people’s fear of contracting COVID-19. Restaurants, hotels, and shops in these locations have also seen drop-offs in revenue in recent times. Although tourist destinations are slowly reopening their doors to the public, many are unsure of whether it’s because they are in dire need of revenue.

Crash landing

For Russell Go, General Manager of Baguio’s G1 Lodge, COVID-19 clipped off their wings just as they were about to spread them. Go explains that the business has only been around for two years, remaining open 24/7, until the pandemic forced them into a temporary closure. Though the establishment was off to a hopeful start, the advent of the pandemic spurred an unfortunate course of events for the hotel. “During that time, we closed everything, so we [didn’t] have any guests,” he laments. 

Down south, businesses in Boracay grappled with the lockdown protocols just as they were getting back on their feet after the mandatory six-month closure of the island for rehabilitation back in 2018. COAST Boracay, one of the island’s premiere resorts, has been dealing with the effects of the pandemic. “[Ever since] this lockdown, we [have been] running on a negative GOP (gross operating profit),” admits General Manager Randy Salvador. He shares that they stayed open to accommodate a mere four guests—two rooms—from March until June.

With the sudden halt of tourism, both G1 Lodge and COAST have had to shoulder immense financial losses. “[For the] first week of June, we opened the rooms, even though we [had] zero guests,” Go divulges. As for Salvador, the lack of business had cornered the resort into laying off the majority of their employees, downsizing from a staff of 90 to just 10 people in a skeletal workforce.

Alternative routes

Despite the devastating effects of the lockdown, however, businesses did not merely sit idle while waiting for the crisis to pass. G1 Lodge took advantage of the timeout by reorganizing their operational structures. “I think we’re better now, in terms of our operations,“ Go expresses, “Our organizational chart now is designed to stay afloat until the pandemic ends.”

Accepting their fate, the business had begun considering other strategies to keep themselves afloat. “We thought about making a restaurant business,” he shares, with G1 Lodge’s newest venture opening its doors to the public last May.

COAST Boracay, on the other hand, has gone the extra mile to ensure hassle-free transactions for their guests from the moment they land in Aklan. “We have our private shuttle, [and we also] have our private speedboat to bring you here,” he details, emphasizing the comfortable experience they create for tourists. He adds that guests can also do contactless check-ins and check-outs through QR codes.

Additionally, in compliance with the regulations of the Department of Tourism (DOT), as well as their respective local governments, both businesses have implemented strict safety measures. Both COAST and G1 Lodge ensure that their guests have tested negative for the coronavirus and have gone through mandatory testing and temperature checks. They also place emphasis in sanitizing all facilities and make sure to provide disinfectants to the tourists. COAST takes their precautions a step further by displaying reminders in their guestrooms’ smart TVs. “When they come in, there are a few reminders about the protocols on the island. Basically, social distancing, [washing] hands, and using masks—things like that,” Salvador expounds.

Travel light

Bienvenido Encarnacion, a faculty member of the Marketing and Advertising Department, explains that tourism is integral to local economies because of the job opportunities it creates. He identifies the revenue brought in by tourism to have large effects on a local economy. “Local tour guides, transport, food service establishments, event planners, and airlines [try] to scope a few but hefty contributors [toward their local] tourism initiative. The workers are either put on furlough, early retirement or given [their] walking papers,” he notes. 

With even the most popular destinations like Boracay going from hundreds of thousands of visitors a month to a mere 19 when it reopened in October, businesses in the tourism industry are struggling to stay afloat; some of them—along with their local governments—have already scrapped antigen swab tests for tourists or are in the process of doing so.

As general restrictions slowly become more lenient, traveling and accommodation for tourists still remain an inconvenience. With travel rules barring foreigners from entering the country for leisure, tourism spots will have to look toward local tourists for revenue. Even then, people from Metro Manila may still have to secure travel passes depending on where they go.

However, safety measures like swab testing, physical distancing, and the closing of amenities can make tourists feel restricted in what would normally be a liberal recreational setting. While these measures are absolutely necessary for hotels to remain open, the difficulty in following these protocols may dissuade potential tourists.

Touch-and-go 

Though businesses may be exerting effort to bridge the gap between them and their potential customers, it is undeniable that tourists won’t be going back to their old habits anytime soon. In spite of the difficult situation, Salvador shares that he is grateful for the efforts of the DOT in helping businesses get back up on their feet. However, he adds that the DOT can take a step further by either subsidizing the fees for tourists’ COVID-19 tests or requiring them to take the cheaper antigen tests instead of the more expensive PCR testing. 

Though both G1 Lodge and COAST are fortunately up and running, many other businesses in the tourism industry have yet to reopen, be it in Baguio, Boracay, or other once-popular tourist destinations in the country. With the pandemic’s unforgiving requirement of caution, as well as the heavily diminished waves of tourists, running hotels or resorts still remain a huge risk and challenge for many. 

Tourism may be slowly recovering, but so long as COVID-19 transmission is still in full swing, the industry will have to continue treading a fine line just to stay alive.

By Romeo Escareal

By Criscela Ysabelle Racelis

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