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At Large

No way to heal tourism industry

Elsewhere in the world, countries whose tourism industry is taking a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic are already preparing for the “new normal.” Hotels are pondering ways to minimize interaction between guests and staff, from digital check-in to closing down buffets. Others are prepping for a domestic market while international travel is still largely in lockdown. Majority of establishments — from huge global chains to local lodges or Airbnb’s — are busily retraining staff for the new health protocols.

But here in the Philippines, judging by the tourism provisions in the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act or Bayanihan 2 bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, lawmakers believe the best way to prepare for the future of a devastated tourism industry is to build infrastructure. Yes, you got it right. Congresspeople apparently believe the best way to “heal” the hurting tourism sector is to build roads, bridges, ports, and airports even as the hotels and facilities catering to tourists, as well as the destinations themselves, are in the doldrums, many facing closure.

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Why infrastructure? Winnie Monsod, in her column in this paper last Saturday on the same questionable bill, hinted at the reason. Public works projects, she said, “have the smell of pork to them — corruption-laden.”

I understand that the original destination of the P10 billion under the Bayanihan 2 bill was the tourism sector itself, that is, the stakeholders who have lost their jobs, their establishments, and their investments. The storm that hit the tourism industry affected not just those in the trade such as hotel owners and staff, tour guides, and transport providers, including airlines. Also suffering are folks tangentially linked to the industry: souvenir manufacturers and sellers, restaurants, sea sports providers, boat drivers, even masseurs offering beach side services.

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Christine Ibarreta, president of the Hotel Sales and Marketing Association, speaks poignantly of the plight of her fellow stakeholders. She described them as “mga tao na pilit nabubuhay araw-araw … nagtitinda na lang ng kung ano-ano para maidaos ang pang-araw-araw na kailangan ng bawat pamilya” (folks who eke out a living each day … selling anything just to provide the daily needs of their families).

These aren’t just a select few, by the way. The estimate is that 4.8 million jobs would be lost should the tourism sector go under.

Even as workers in other sectors count on government “ayuda” or dole-outs to see them through the harsh lockdown, tourism stakeholders have seemingly been ignored. This was why the tourism provision in the Bayanihan 2 bill was designed to keep the industry afloat, tide over the folks suddenly deprived of a livelihood, and help them get back on their feet and invest in maintaining or improving their establishments. What the House of Representatives decided to do, instead, was to redirect the money to infrastructure, not a centavo of which, by the way, will go to the people who need it most.

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It’s not as if the tourism sector is a charity case begging for a pittance for survival.

According to official figures, in 2019 tourism’s contributed share to national coffers, the direct gross value added amounted to P2.48 trillion, a 10.8-percent increase from the previous year’s total of P2.24 trillion. But just to show what a devastating blow COVID-19 and the resulting panic dealt the industry, the same figures show that from January to July this year, tourism arrivals fell by 72.87 percent, from 4,852,107 arrivals in 2019 to 1,318,719 this year. This resulted in reduced receipts by 71.57 percent, from P284.82 billion to P81.05 billion.

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Clearly, tourism was a huge contributor to national wealth and growth, and was well on its way to playing a more important role in the economy. As a report on international tourism prepared by the OECD points out: “Tourism is a significant part of many national economies, and the immediate and immense shock to the tourism sector resulting from the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the wider economy.”

What are the challenges to government in this situation? Says the OECD study: “Many countries are now entering a new phase in fighting the virus while at the same time managing the reopening of the tourism economy. This is a complex and challenging task, and quantifying the impact on the tourism economy is difficult.”

Or as Ibaretta puts it: “It wouldn’t really be fun in the Philippines if the stakeholders will not have the funds and the means to continue on living.”

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TAGS: At Large, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, Philippine Tourism, Rina Jimenez-David
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