Tourism secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat traveled to El Nido this week to oversee the town’s preparations for reopening to domestic or local tourists starting in November. As plans stand, the once vibrant tourist town will be open for business to leisure seekers coming from general and moderate quarantine areas (GCQ and MGCQ), subject to a set of health protocols intended to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
The protocols involve, among others, prior RT-PCR test clearances for visiting individuals, including social distancing, use of masks, and similar basic safety protocol determined by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) in Manila.
Both the DOT and the provincial government have been pushing for such an early opening of Palawan tourism attractions and facilities since the lockdowns in Palawan were eased from GCQ to MCGQ in June. This, even as parts of the province encountered significant surges in COVID-19 cases and instances of community transmission, including Puerto Princesa City and Coron which are both mainstream travel destinations before the pandemic.
The effort is a bold move to balance tourism and the government’s restrictive response to the pandemic virus defined by the stay-at-home and wash-hand-often protocols. El Nido was especially hard-hit, considering that its local economy is almost exclusively dependent on tourism. A case can of course be made here that since El Nido has had on record only two positive cases of COVID-19 since the health crisis began, the continuation of strict quarantine measures seems counterproductive.
The DOT wanted to make a case for reopening a tourist attraction under a controlled environment that it encouraged one of the more established local player in town, the El Nido Resorts, to pilot a tourism bubble experiment in early July. Tourists were flown into the resorts facilities under close supervision so as to ensure health safety. It was deemed successful by both the DOT and the local government, hence a more expanded re-opening is now set to take place.
How El Nido will emerge from this experiment, however, will not only be determined by factors within the DOT and the LGU’s control, which is to enforce all the necessary health protocols to ensure that the town will not be put to a health risk that it cannot handle. The current pandemic lessons tell us that the virus has an uncanny resilience and has the ability to surge back even when everyone starts feeling safer.
It is worthy to note that at least finally, El Nido now has a newly inaugurated 17-bed hospital that can handle critical care where before it had none. The provincial government had also stated plans to put up an RT-PCR testing facility for Covid infection.
Palawan has embarked on a pioneering effort that can serve as a template for other tourism areas in the rest of the country. Its success rests on the town’s ability to manage the virus as more people come in from the outside, and maybe a good amount of luck.
***** READ THE EDITORIAL’S FILIPINO VERSION HERE: Ang eksperimento sa tourism bubble ng El Nido