El Nido is set to reopen to local tourists starting September 15, gradually removing the restrictions it had imposed since the lockdown period that began in March, including at one point the closure of its borders to outsiders.
Edgardo Sabenacio, the town’s emergency operations manager, said they are “confident and ready” for reopening local tourism, and are aiming to start receiving visitors from outside the province by the end of the year.
“The preparations and dry-runs are ongoing, and the gradual reopening will start for locals [individuals from within mainland Palawan]. We will reassess our response system, and probably from October to December, we would reopen to tourists from outside Palawan,” Sabenacio said in Filipino.
He explained that part of their preparations is an ongoing inspection of establishments and ensuring their compliance to a set of health protocols defined by the Department of Tourism (DOT) and the municipal government of El Nido.
Under the plan, the town also plans to lift the current policy imposed by the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) closing the island destinations to tourism. Tour activities, however, will be “regulated and controlled” to ensure health safety.
All tourism establishments have also been required to secure a Certificate of Authority To Operate (CATO) from the tourism department before they are allowed to reopen.
While travel to Palawan remains strictly regulated under present health restrictions, the Department of Tourism has allowed at least one El Nido based luxury resort, the Ayala-owned Ten Knots Resorts, to receive guests from outside Palawan but following a scheme developed by the tourism department which they described as a “travel bubble”.
Among other safety measures, the resort’s guests are required to undergo an RT-PCR test for prior to their departure for Palawan.
Mariglo Laririt, Director for Environment and Sustainability of Ten Knots, described their operation as “controlled and regulated” to ensure health safety. This, she said, includes minimizing direct interaction between the their guests and locals.
The luxury resort, currently limited to Miniloc Island Resort, was first opened to 24 tourists on mid-July. The second run, from August 28 to September 1, currently holds 59 guests. The third leg is scheduled to start on September 11 to 14.
Arriving guests would have activities limited only on the island to regulate the possible transmission of the new coronavirus disease. The system and protocols were also updated to limit the contact and reduce the exposure of the guests who “needed a breather after being isolated in their homes for months”.
“It is costly in the beginning, but the objective is to regain the confidence of people to travel. It creates a statement that tourism is not completely out, and in fact, starting to reawaken,” Laririt said.
The “safe haven”
Sanggunian Bayan member Christine Nicole Lim, author of municipal resolution No. 20-191 approved on August 11, rebranded the tourism campaign from “Friendly Paradise” to “Our Safe Haven” in order to adapt to the “new normal” mode of tourism and “general way of life” amid the pandemic.
The campaign aims to “provide comfort” for the “tired souls”, branding El Nido as a “safe haven like a sanctuary”.
El Nido, however, will retain its border closure with the Calamian Island Group where Coron is presently battling a rise in COVID-19 cases linked to community transmission of the virus.
Strengthening its medical service capability to arm its scheduled tourism reopening, the local government of El Nido on Friday inaugurated a P140-million community hospital, the first government medical facility in this northern town.
Palawan governor Jose Alvarez, in his inaugural message, said that a real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) laboratory would soon be put up to strengthen its medical service capability.
El Nido mayor Edna Gacot-Lim said that Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat would also donate laboratory equipment for the town’s hospital as it eyes tourism reopening amid the pandemic.
The 17-bed hospital, which was funded by the Department of Health (DOH) and the provincial government of Palawan, is capable of extending up to 50 bed total carrying capacity.
The El Nido Community Hospital is an infirmary facility armed with medical services to initially operate with emergency care, laboratory and x-ray service, out-patient care, surgical service, pharmacy, service ambulance and isolation facility.
The El Nido town was hailed as “World’s Best Island in 2020” by a popular global tourism magazine Travel+Leisure in July. The Palawan province has been on the annual top list, randomly selected among the readers of the leading US-based publication on the tourism business, in 2013, 2016, and 2017.