Photo courtesy of Team Immortals/CAAP AREA IV Puerto Princesa International Airport

The tourism sector in Puerto Princesa is appealing to the city government to open its borders to vaccinated tourists under a “bubble tourism” policy already adopted by several municipalities in the province including El Nido.

Local tourism industry leaders told reporters in a briefing that they have formalized their appeal to the city government to initiate the policy starting December 1 and are awaiting its response.

Rix Rafols, a business leader, pointed out that local tourism enterprises will not thrive if the city remains closed to inbound tourists. He argued that major inroads in the government’s national vaccination drive make it possible for the city to open its borders.

“Ang kagandahan ngayon is 80 percent of the people in NCR is vaccinated. Ang kagandahan din ngayon, almost all tourism stakeholder and tourism worker here in Puerto Princesa are vaccinated. Hindi naman natin papapuntahin ‘yang mga tourist na ‘yan sa malalayong lugar na hindi vaccinated. That’s why we are proposing for at least a bubble tourism opening,” he said.

Rafols said they are proposing a “dry run” on the tourism bubble policy to start in December, with the target of fully opening the city’s destinations by February.

“Iyong kumbaga dry run na, if serious about February 1 na mag-o-open tayo for domestic tourism, magkaroon tayo ng dry run. Marami kaming suggestions, nahihirapan kami sa totoo lang kasi parang stand alone, hindi kami napapakinggan lalo na ‘yong tourist sector. Yes, maraming agam-agam, maraming fears. Pero tanggapin na natin na this will be part of our lives,” he added.

Bruce Tan of Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort said they are ready to open considering the high vaccination rate of economic frontliners, the presence of molecular laboratory, and the adaptation of locals in new normal.

“Gusto namin sabihin na we are ready. We are ready to open,” Tan said.

“I think nasanay na rin ang tao how to deal with COVID. That’s evident naman. Hindi naman tayo ‘yong first destination na magbubukas. Nagbukas na ‘yong Bohol, El Nido, Coron, San Vicente, Baguio—marami-rami na rin talaga. Halos Puerto Princes ana lang talaga ang sarado,” he added.

Proposed point-to-point bubble tourism policy
Rafols said that the tourism stakeholders have proposals for the city government, which include the implementation of bubble tourism which is also practiced in El Nido.

In a petition dated November 8, the local stakeholders stated that other local tourist destinations such as Boracay, El Nido, Siargao, Coron, and Baguio have already reopened their industry to domestic travelers with the continuous vaccination roll-out and observance with minimum health and safety standards.

“Therefore, instead of reopening the city only to local tourists, we believe that it is high time to gradually reopen the city to fully-vaccinated domestic tourists through a “point-to-point bubble tourism policy.” This proposal is positioned in order for the city to be ready in its full reopening to domestic tourists in the coming months,” the petition noted.

They believed that the growing number of fully vaccinated individuals throughout the country and Puerto Princesa will help the implementation of the policy, citing that as of November 7, 64,195,936 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered in the Philippines.

The city government is equipped with a molecular laboratory capable of RT-PCR testing which can help in detection, testing, tracing, and isolation of active COVID-19 cases, the group added.

Supporting the proposal of full reopening to local tourists and gradual reopening to fully vaccinated domestic tourists in a point-to-point bubble tourism policy, the stakeholders prepared proposals intended for the Tourism Related Establishments (TREs), Incident Management Team (IMT), and the city government of Puerto Princesa.

The TREs must have a safety team with one safety officer as lead, standing order with the Puerto Princesa IMT for the provision of daily check-ups, prescriptions and medicines, with an isolation area, decontamination team, monitoring and surveillance team, flow chart management, safety seal certification issued by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and approved safety measures.

While for the IMT, the proposed provision of training to TREs on the following are decontamination (mixing of solutions, cleaning), level of infection control, seminar and orientation on the process of referral, workshop on creating guidelines and specifications in handling tourists which is itinerary-based from arrival to departure.

The proposal for the city government is to implement the point-to-point bubble tourism ensuring that all local and domestic tourists are fully-vaccinated. Mandatory Rapid Antigen Test for all tourists must be done. All tourists must adhere only to the submitted and approved travel itineraries, the group added.

The stakeholders also expressed their willingness to provide technical assistance and expertise to work with the city government to help bring life back to local businesses.

“We firmly believe that we can attain economic recovery without compromising the health and safety of everybody through this close partnership between the private sector and the City Government of Puerto Princesa,” the petition added.

Safety with bubble tourism
The tourist will be sent directly to the city hotel once arrived in Puerto Princesa. Following their itinerary, they will be brought to their destination and sent back to the hotel for accommodation. The tourist is assured that he or she will only have contacts with vaccinated staff in all the routes of the visit from drivers, tour guides, and hotel staff, Tan said.

“It’s very low risk. I don’t really see anything na bakit hindi natin pwede gawin ‘yon kasi ito na ‘yong ginagawa ng halos lahat na nag-open na,” he said.

The stakeholders also said that it is important to also check if the other areas which reopened their spots for domestic travelers have also experienced a surge in cases of COVID-19.

“Actually, hindi natin ino-open ang tourism, ino-open natin ang economy. Nagiging driver lang ang tourism, ino-open natin ‘yong pera galing sa labas papunta ng Puerto, ang tulay lang non ay tourism,” he said.

Tan personally experienced 80 percent retrenchment in his business with only 20 percent remaining staff.

Depending on local tourists is not sustainable
Rafols said that many restaurants, tourist destinations, and community-based sustainable tourism (CBST) sites close their operations as pandemic has started.

“Kapag umikot kayo sa Rizal Avenue, hindi naman totoo na local tourist alone will save us. Ang daming restaurants na nagsara, tourist destinations, ang daming CBST na nagsara. How we can just say na local tourists will just be able to save us? Sana simulan na natin—‘yong bubble tourism,” he said.

Even the accommodation sector expressed frustration as local tourists cannot occupy the spaces of hotels in the city. Resulting in a financial struggle to earn and pay their staff. The local market is now saturated, Tan stressed.

They pointed out there are currently 15 hotels that are ready and willing to accommodate domestic travelers. There are already inquiries and plans of bookings received for December coming from the outside tourists, stakeholders shared.

Tan said that local businesses in the city cannot stay close forever as they also need to earn to pay their staff in the early months of next year.

“We really need to open. We can’t stay close forever. On a business sense din, ayaw din naman namin ma-miss out ang December. Alam naman natin na ‘pag quarter four, diyan talaga gumagastos ang tao. Alam naman natin na kapag January to February, back to tipid mode na naman ang mga tao,” Tan said.

“Kung titingnan sa internet o surveys, one of the number one or two places na people want to go after or kapag okay na pwede na mag-travel ay Palawan. So paano natin masasabi na walang takers?” Rafols added.

Tan noted that Puerto Princesa was making P5 billion annually from the tourism industry during pre-pandemic years. If the city will not open for domestic travelers this December about 200 million. The contribution of local tourism this time of pandemic is only to suffice the salary needs for employees.

“That’s conservative pa, pera ‘yan galing labas. Pwera pa ang local tourism. Kung ako ang business owner, ang kikitain ko for December, ‘yon na ang titipirin ko hanggang magbukas ang international tourism,” he said.

Travel agencies and tour operators said that they have exhausted all means to survive in the time of the pandemic, with pending debts of paying their loaned vehicles.

Evelyn Gonzales of the Association of Accredited Tour Operator of Puerto Princesa Palawan Philippines (AATOPPPP) said that they can only send guests to El Nido while the industry remained at pause in Puerto Princesa.

“Wala na, said na talaga–nakikiawa na nga kami,” she said.

“This is real people na nagugutom, na binalik na ‘yong van. They don’t really know what would happen next year,” Tan added.

The local stakeholders observed that due to the experienced absence of tourists, the unused boats are slowly acquiring damages. Sustainable support to them must also be given to them, Rafols added.

They are appealing to the government to listen to their proposal as they have no options but to survive. Rafols said that different tourism stakeholders have already a series of meetings with the government in connection to their appeal.

Stakeholders are looking forward to a clear and concrete long-term plan for the tourism industry of Puerto Princesa.

“Same thing na ginagawa namin since last year but to survive, wala naman kaming choice—talagang drowning na kami. Hirap na hirap,” he said.