The popular tourism magazine Travel+Leisure this week proclaimed Palawan again as its readers’ choice winner among 25 best islands in the world.

This would be the 4th time Palawan placed on top of the annual list, randomly selected among the readers of the leading US-based publication on the tourism business. It was 2nd only last year to Sri Lanka after grabbing two consecutive top rankings in 2016 and 2017. It first led the list in 2013. Palawan has nevertheless been always on the top 10.

One ought to think that such consistent international exposure should have already been enough to prop Palawan tourism to the world big leagues, but it hadn’t. Not yet anyway.

In 2019, Bali had around 8.3 million tourists and Phuket in Thailand had close to 10 million. These two places are relative underperformers in the T+L readers’ choice and most probably didn’t really care, so long as the tourists came and spent their vacation money.

Compare that to Palawan’s under 2 million annual arrivals to get a perspective on where are in the mainstream. While infrastructure and connectivity remain the biggest challenge in cashing in on Palawan’s global appeal as a destination, we were going there – then the pandemic happened.

The provincial government estimates Palawan’s tourism losses due to the pandemic that began early this year to around P150 billion. The figure is hard to validate from official records but such estimates seems within realistic range. Last week, the province of Palawan said the health crisis had displaced some 25,000 tourism related jobs in the province.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has swiped cleaned the slate on global tourism in an unprecedented manner, with the industry practically grinding to a halt. How it recovers remains an evolving question, with critical health concerns dictating the terms of the so-called “new normal” ways of doing business.

The Department of Tourism’s initiative to gradually reopen Palawan’s tourism ahead of the others, by trying it out in El Nido, makes sense from a business perspective. It implies that we are at least trying to get ahead of the pack when the recovery happens.

This needs to be counter-balanced however by critical concerns about health risks and timing. The jury is out to say whether right now is the best time to reopen Palawan’s struggling tourism sector, with COVID-19 remaining as a potent threat and not to be dismissed as a mere flu.

This is probably where science needs to be an integral part of the planning process that the DoT and the provincial government should consider.