“If the domestic travelers haven’t arrived yet, we just have to be patient,” Marc Montesa, General Manager of Aziza Paradise Hotel said as he described how he and a handful of their hotel staff toiled through the pandemic to keep an expansive but otherwise empty hotel up and running.
Just about a month earlier, one of the first major hotels in Puerto Princesa City, The Legend Hotel, decided it could no longer sustain losses and closed its business, following what many other smaller tourism-related establishments had done if only to cut their losses and take no further business risks.
Montesa and most of the members of the hotel and accommodations sector are holding on to the promise of a new normal. They have petitioned City Mayor Lucilo Bayron to facilitate a mid-December re-opening of the Puerto Princesa City International Airport and save what they described as a “dying industry.”
The organized travel sector had been hoping that the city government will agree to ease travel restrictions since the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) of the national government had already allowed travel between low-risk areas even as the pandemic caused by the dreaded COVID-19 virus continued to threaten the population.
Now that another year has unfolded, not only tourism-related businesses but more and more industries and sectors are optimistic that the local economy will recover, even though slowly.
The provincial government has estimated that Palawan’s mainstream tourism industry has lost over P150 billion due to the pandemic. The town of Coron, which is the province’s main tourist draw, had estimated its own losses at around P3 billion.
Similarly, Puerto Princesa reopened its tourist destinations and accommodations by December 8. However, unlike El Nido and Coron, the city did not push through widening its gate for domestic travelers, which was the lever for the petition mentioned above.
Other government agencies, especially the Department of Trade and Industry, in response to the petition made, said that whatever the decision of the city government, they would be in full support to help the locals recuperate from their commercial losses.
“Kung papayag ang local government [to reopen for domestic travel], support naman po kami para naman makarecover at makabangon ang ating most-affected sector which is sa tourism. Basta the top priority is safety,” Emma F. Quillope, Chief Trade and Development Specialist, Division Chief of DTI Palawan’s Business Development Division, said.
She added that the DTI, together with its financing arm, Small Business Corporation (SBC), is also doing its part to assist merchants and workers who were badly-stricken by the crisis, through its loan grants.
Meanwhile, Dr. Maria Cherry Lyn Salazar-Rodolfo of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) and Andrew Tan of the Center for Tourism Research (CTR), identified the 4Cs of reasons why people, whether local, domestic, or international tourists are encouraged to travel in 2021: Compelling reason, Confidence, Comfort, Cost.
“There is always the yearning of people to travel so as long as they have the compelling reason, they might be willing to shell out extra just to be able to travel,” Dr. Rodolfo said. In her presentation, she mentioned that even before COVID-19, the demand for products and services related to regenerative travel such as farm and agricultural tourism has been compelling, therefore it’s important to work on these sectors as another year opens.
She also encouraged people to work together, especially that 2021 is identified as the period of rebuilding [the tourism sector], implications were based on the Domestic Travel Survey. The phases include “rebuilding trust and confidence in traveler, adapt to the new normal, shift to digital, and collaborate with stakeholders.”
Businessman Rante Ramos of Don Samura Restaurant believes that the local economy could recover faster if the local government could focus on encouraging and supporting a shift to food production as an industry.
“Palawan’s economy may have the ability to recover faster, even ‘kept in a vacuum’, if the local leadership and businessmen make a concerted effort to shift to food production business while awaiting for tourism climate to stabilize and become resilient to the threat of COVID,” Ramos said.
“Palawan is epidemic-free plaguing other provinces and regions, and rarely devastated by typhoons. It could seize that opportunity to supply food to other regions,” he explained.
“The sector is relying on the policies that are adopted by local government units to pump prime economic activities. It’s wait and see. Many people are really suffering, especially the low-ranking workers,” Montesa said.
They, however, have tempered their own expectations on the speed of recovery. “Realistically, even if Palawan is open for domestic travelers, hindi dadagsa. People are afraid to fly and, of course, nobody has money,” he said.
“We have to take risks because that’s the only business we have right now. It’s simply not enough to sustain the viability in the business market. We want to be optimistic however we are also being realistic as to what is really happening in the ground,” he added.
Ramos agrees with the guarded expectation. “Even after the COVID vaccine becomes available, I foresee a snail-paced rate of recovery. Our local economy is tourism-dependent. Even if the government eases travel restrictions, who would spend money on tourism this time? People would rather save money to recover the loss they incurred or perhaps pay up unpaid loan amortizations during the pandemic,” he said.
The province’s trade and industry officials said they are prepared to support the local government and private sector in the gradual reopening of tourism and have introduced financial tools to help in the recovery.
“The Department of Trade and Industry is looking forward na maging consistent and safe ang pagbubukas ng tourism and it’s an opportunity for locals to explore our very own tourist destinations. Ito na yung pagkakataong maging turista sa sariling bayan,” Quillope told Palawan News.
Abby Isla, owner of another restaurant that recently opened in the midst of the pandemic, said they maintain high hopes that the business sector will recover. “Local entrepreneurs like us are braving the pandemic to contribute to the business community and help each other. Yong maganda sa local businesses are that we tend to buy from local suppliers as well, so the profit circulates back to our community consequently helping our local economy,” she said.