EL NIDO, Palawan — This picturesque coastal town, which prides itself as one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, is officially the first nature attraction in the country to re-open to tourism following the pandemic lockdowns in March.
As the town officially opened for business on November 1, there is, however, hardly a trace of what it used to be before the health crisis began — no crowded streets of tourists and hawkers, and no flurry of tourist boats taking off into the famous islets and coves.
“Hindi rin talaga ramdam, although may mga pumapasok na guests from locals. As of now may guests kami pero hindi rin tulad ng dati na halos lahat ng room namin ay occupied. Ngayon halos sa isang araw, dalawang room,” Rachel Rombua, a resort manager, told Palawan News. Rombua works for Moringa Resort, one of the several establishments especially allowed by the Department of Tourism (DOT) to re-open during the pandemic.
The local government had pushed for this early reopening of the town, hoping to lure back travelers and breathe life into its struggling economy.
As preparation, many establishments such as hotels had to seek a special compliance permit from the Department of Tourism (DOT), in the form of a Certificate of Authority to Operate (CATO).
Rombua said that even if they had resumed the hotel’s operations, the business had been slow. In able to cut on costs, the management decided to retrench its employees and reduce its staff from 100 to 13. Those who were retained had been assigned to multitask.
“Masasabi namin na hindi pa ramdam na bumabalik na ‘yong turismo. Noong September na lang pero paisa-isa lang ang pasok ng guests namin. Dati nakaka-experience kami na may overbooking pa, ngayon may linggo na walang guest,” she said.
Rombua believes that even as the industry reopened for domestic tourists, it will still take years to recover, considering that rely significantly on foreign tourists.
From the locals’ perspective
Many El Nido residents believe it would still take years before recovery will be felt in the town.
“Ngayon na kabubukas pa lang, hindi pa siya ramdam kasi wala pa, local tourists pa lang, hindi pa ata open sa ibang lugar. Sobrang laki ng pinagkaiba kasi wala pa rin nag-island hopping, takot pa rin siguro at saka wala rin siguro na budget ‘yong maliliit na tao, ‘yong mga big time siguro,” Benny Enciso said.
“Hindi pa rin tulad ng dati, siguro ramdam na namin pero paunti-unti kasi kapag biglain din, mahirap. Basta dumaan tayo sa tamang proseso. Malaki ang pinagkakaiba, pero sa turista hindi pa masyado, local pa lang,” Jacob, another local, added.
Marissa, a 31-year-old stranded American tourist in El Nido since month of March believed that the industry would take time before it recovers.
“I came the day before the lockdown. I came to visit a friend in Vietnam, wasn’t sure what’s gonna happen but we said, okay let’s see. Now I like it here. Now it’s feeling more open, I think it’s gonna happen slowly. It will take time for people to get used to going back to normal,” she said.
Business survival mode
Unlike some hotels and locals, restaurants are slowly observing the increase in their sales as the domestic tourism industry has reopened. However, the number of tourists is still insufficient to cope with their operating costs and a total increase in sales.
One of the town’s local restaurants, Maxana, has only started its operation in September 2019 and decided to temporarily close by March due to lockdown.
Arvy Valentin, the manager, said they reopened in August but had to reduce the number of employees from 10 to three. He said there are many days they have zero customers.
“Lahat din halos ng establishments dito sarado pa. Kami lang talaga survival kasi wala eh. Talagang mga pumupunta diyan ay mga dayo lang, puro local. Dati (before lockdown) ay nasa 60-40, 60 percent na foreigner,” he said.
If he will compare the situation of the town from March to present, Valentin said there is a slow increase of sales from local customers. He said that he considered closing the restaurant altogether but decided not to.
“Muntik-muntikan na (magsara) kasi kung nakauwi lang ako baka magko-close muna siya, naplano na rin na i-close kaso hindi naman kami makauwi. Nong nagpa-open na sila for take-out, nagpa-take out na rin kami,” he said.
Lester delos Reyes, manager of I.B.R. Restaurant which has been operating for nine years, said that he is slowly feeling the reopening of the tourism industry due to the subtle increase in his sales.
“Subtle, nararamdaman na kasi may changes na sa sales namin, hindi ko pa sure kung tuloy-tuloy siya pero meron na rin. Linear increase siya, nag-start siya ng ilang percent. No’ng nag-operate kami uli no’ng May, nag-loss kami ng 92 percent sa sales, umakyat lang ng kaunti nitong reopening na lang,” he said.
He said that they are struggling each month to cope with their operation costs. His restaurant has reduced its staff by 50 percent and believed that it would take them five years before it recovers.
“Since ang volume ng tao, hindi pa nakaka-keep up sa opening, iyon din ang pinoproblema namin kung paano mapapa-increase ang sales. May mga spikes, may days na mataas, may dati na balik sa dati. Hindi ko pa masabi ang difference,” he said.
Health compliance of hotels and resorts
Rombua said their establishment is compliant with health protocols prescribed and also allots a room intended as an isolation facility for unwanted instances such as employees having similar COVID-19 symptoms, she added. She said that as an additional requirement of DOT, Moringa also complied with the Quick Response (QR) code for contactless registration and payment method.
The hotel management even got codes for their employees for contact tracing of their tracks.
“Tumatanggap kami ng domestic kasi sumusunod din kami sa procedure o sa safety protocol. Kapag galing sa ng domestic flight, ina-undergo sila ng 14 days (quarantine) so then, pero kapag meron na silang swab test and they have proof na nag-14 days quarantine sila like what we do for safety protocol ay ina-accept natin sila,” she said.
Under Phase II of domestic tourism reopening, the DOT gave a green light to eight resorts owned by El Nido Resorts and Lio Estate Resorts managed by Ayala-owned Ten Knots Philippines Inc to receive guests from outside Palawan following the travel bubble scheme.
Mariglo Laririt, director for Environment and Sustainability of Ten Knots, said that they have complied with CATO and accreditation to DOT. Each of eight resorts was also virtually inspected by DOT to ensure compliance to established protocols such as QR codes, contactless bookings, and payments.
“Eight out of nine belong to us but that doesn’t mean that we will open all of them at the same time. If you notice, how we’ve been doing it is slowly but surely. In July we had one travel bubble and we opened Miniloc island for that. I think it is important for people to understand na hindi ito ‘yong bukas na tayo, pasok na lahat,” she said.
Laririt also stressed that ensuring the regular health checkup of their staff is a way of complying with their commitment to them and to the community.
“Nagkaroon pa rin kami ng RDT. We know it’s imperfect but it’s at that time is the best possible way for us to at least how our staff including myself fair in terms of health status. Two days ago we transitioned to antigen testing. In as much as sige gusto mo na magbukas, you have to test all your staff before they go on board and after. That also requires resources, hindi rin mura ang testing,” she said.
She said that re-opening requires consciousness of the possible cost estimating how many tourists would visit the sites.
She added that they are focusing more on tourists coming from Manila as they are already RT-PCR tested before coming to El Nido.
“What if meron nga mag-positive either staff or guest? We are also prepared for that eventually. We do a lot of contact tracing, every moves our guest and staff make, lahat yan may contact tracing na nagaganap. Kapag may nag-positive we have to inform everybody about that, everyone will have to be tested. For our staff we have an isolation facility on the mainland,” she said.
In November, Laririt said that they would only open one Lio Estate Resort, Casa Calaw. She said that they are still looking for ways on how they will do contact tracing if their guests would decide to roam outside their owned resorts particularly in poblacion area.
“If everyone can guarantee a certain level of health awareness and protocol all over the municipality, then it would be great because we can now start sharing guests kumbaga where you can have lunch here like before, have dinner there, walang problema. But at this point, I don’t know yet,” she said.
Palawan News tried to reach the municipal office for the further ruling guidelines of phase II reopening in town. None of its officials, however, obliged to be interviewed.