Tourists get ready to board a local banca. (Photo courtesy of Reggie Ulanday)

Eased travel restrictions and dwindling COVID-19 cases are bringing more tourism arrivals to El Nido, a municipality highly dependent on the tourism industry, but challenges still abound for the town that has been struggling to brave the economic challenges brought by the pandemic.

All tourism activities in the town were shut down in March 2020, after the country was placed under total lockdown due to increasing cases of COVID-19. While it reopened its doors in November 2020, the town shuttered back and forth for two years due to COVID surges and repeated lockdowns.

This time, since late February, the town has once again begun to see tourists flocking to the pier for their island hopping trips. Locals rejoiced on social media, optimistic that things were eventually going back to the way they were before COVID came.

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Tourists on the town’s floating pontoon, the main jump-off point to the islands. (Photo courtesy of Reggie Ulanday)

Meanwhile, the Municipal Tourism Office (MTO) also reported that they had the highest single-day tally of tourist arrivals ever at 532 on February 25, further giving hope to hard-hit business owners and workers.

One business owner, Reggie Ulanday, who owns and runs Leatherback Travel and Tours, said that while the throngs of tourists are bringing optimism to businesses like theirs, they are still wary of the present danger of COVID-19. She also observed that arrivals are still relatively low compared to pre-pandemic levels, where there seemed to be no difference between peak seasons and low seasons.

“Masaya dahil nagkakaroon ng pag-asa na makakabalik na sa kanya-kanyang hanapbuhay at negosyo ang mga mamamayan at makakabangon ulit ang lahat. Naroon ang takot sa sakit pero syempre nagiging maingat din sa kinatatakutang COVID-19,” Ulanday said in an interview through Facebook Messenger.

“Malayo pa kumpara sa mga dumarating na bakasyonista noon. Kapag weekends lang medyo madami at kapag week days kakaunti ang mga turista,” she added.

Ulanday also said that now that there are tourists again, business owners face soaring prices for fuel and goods. Present restrictions, since the town is still under Alert Level 2, are also hindrances to maximizing revenue.

Tourists at Lio Airport are screened by officials upon arrival. (Photo courtesy of the Palawan Provincial Tourism Promotions and Development Office)

“Ang mga challenges ngayon ay yung pagtaas ng mga bilihin gaya ng pagkain at gasolina. Isa sa pahirap sa mga mamamayan. Ang antigen test every 15 days, na kapag nag-positive ka ‘di ka makakapag-hanapbuhay. Dumadami din ang requirements sa mga business establishments, ganoon na rin ang carrying capacity ng boats,” Ulanday said.

She also noted that some boat owners lost their units due to natural calamities, and have gone into disrepair due to a lack of income. Some are unable to keep up with the volume of arrivals and demand for island hopping tours, which is what makes El Nido famous.

“Isa pa sa inaalala namin na kapag dumagsa ang turista ay magkukulang sa mga bangka dahil sa 70 per (boat) capacity lamang ang maaaring isakay. Marami na rin mga bangkang nasira, napabayaan o nabulok dahil sa pandemic, ang iba naman ay expire ang mga papel at ang lisensya ng mga boatmen,” she added.

Ulanday said business owners and workers would greatly benefit from even further easing of restrictions and requirements, particularly on antigen testing and the S-PASS system. While the MTO is currently working towards removing those requirements for fully-vaccinated tourists, Ulanday said these requirements are turning away potential tourists due to confusion and tediousness.”Sa

tingin ko, mas dadami ang turista kung aalisin ang S-PASS at antigen sa mga fully vaccinated na turista dahil ‘yan ang inaayawan ng mga bisita, dahil sa tagal ng proseso at abala sa kanila, kaya lumilipat na lamang sila sa ibang tourist destinations. Mas maganda din na kung may bagong ipapatupad na requirements magkaroon ng sapat na panahon para ma-inform ang mga turista, at makapag handa sila at hindi maghatid ng kalituhan sa kanila,” said Ulanday.

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is a senior reporter for Palawan News who covers politics, education, environment, tourism, and human interest stories. She loves watching Netflix, reading literary fiction, and listens to serial fiction podcasts. Her favorite color is blue.