Rising up in Bicol: What our Tourism and Travel Industry in Bicol should Expect

by Alec Francis Santos,
Naga City Tourism Officer

The last pandemic happened more than a century ago. The travel and tourism industry, as we know it now, was virtually non-existent then. Most people lived and died within their respective countries.

The advent of globalization and the popularization of mass travel allowed people to travel beyond borders and explore the beauty of our world. Supply chains and global markets expanded, encouraging business travel. This flow and exchange of people and money gave birth to our tourism and travel industry, leading to the creation of new types of enterprises that cater to the needs of travelers, and creating much-needed jobs at the community level.

Now, we are faced with the challenge of surviving through this dark phase in our industry’s history. Travel bans, quarantines, and lockdowns have virtually deprived our industry of our markets. Supply chains that support our tourism enterprises are also at risk of collapsing.

Navigating through the dark can be a scary proposition. What we need now, more than ever, is to understand clearly what our industry is facing and to break down our fears into manageable challenges. For every problem, there is a solution.

Tourism, as we know it, will change. Given the global impact of this pandemic, there is no going back to tourism as we know it. It's no longer "business as usual." The new normal will be more like "business unusual."

Disruption has been knocking at the tourism and travel industry’s door for some time now: AirBnB, Grab/Uber, online travel agencies, DIY tours. The advent of digital technology and the strong growth of the shared economy has given rise to several innovations that have been gnawing at the heels of traditional tourism businesses for years now. We can no longer ignore the fact that these disruptions should have been recognized much earlier and the tourism and travel industry should have evolved to accommodate them.

A game-changing disruption requires us to change the rules of the game. Faced with this new reality, we have no choice but to adapt as quickly as possible. Covid-19 changed the entire game. This pandemic has effectively decimated an entire industry dependent on the mobility of people. Faced with this new and sad reality, we have no choice but to change the rules of the game. Standing idly by is no longer a choice.

Because this virus spreads when people move about, and because there is no vaccine yet, travel will be the last thing on people's mind.

 People will have these reactions to travel, as time goes on:

1. I'm afraid to travel. For the next couple of months, people will stay in the relative safety of their homes or communities. No one will dare travel.

2. I'll only travel if I really need to. No one will take unnecessary risks. Unless people are fully convinced that they will be safe when they venture out, they won't.

3. I'll travel closer to home. When the immediate threat of the virus wanes, people will have more confidence to explore their immediate surroundings. International travel will definitely be not on anyone's radar.

4. I'm ready to travel anywhere. Finally, when a vaccine has been found and has been administered globally, people will now have the full confidence to travel.

We can expect clients to ask this simple question when and if they need to travel: "Is it safe?"

Safety will be the one thing on people's mind when you mention travel. Because of the uncertainties and unknowns related to Covid-19, travelers will understandably be placing great importance on safety. Travelers need to be assured that they will be safe from the time they leave their homes to the time they arrive and stay at their destination and back to their homes again.

Structure-wise, the new normal for the travel and tourism industry should remain the same: you have your demand side, represented by tourists, and the supply side, represented by tourism businesses, but with one big caveat: both of them will be operating within a cocoon of safety. Safety first. Safety always. That will be the mantra of both tourists and businesses for years to come.

In order to navigate the landscape brought about by the "new normal", it's important for us to consider the following tip: think ahead and think out of the box. Anticipatory planning and innovative thinking will be our saving grace.

The UNWTO recommends that any efforts from the industry must be focused on three key areas:

1. Managing the crisis and mitigating the impact (where we are currently at)

2. Providing stimulus and accelerating recovery (where government support must be most felt and seen)

3. Preparing for the future (where we must fully adapt to the new realities facing our industry)

It might be tempting to simply have an optimistic view and assume that things will go back to the way there were before the Luzon ECQ, but the reality is, things have changed permanently for our industry. We should not expect a quick or elastic rebound. Travel bans and quarantines are not the same as the cure to Covid-19. At best, we are looking at 2-3 years before life and business can go back to where it was before. So, to make better sense of the period post-ECQ, we should think of the following phases:

1. Phase 1 (0-3 months after ECQ lifting, June-August 2020) –

To make better sense, each phase will be defined by recommended specific objectives by the industry and the government, as well as a cross-cutting theme to guide both of their planning and policies.

For Phase 1, the industry's main objective should be to retain resources. The government's objective would be the survival of businesses. And the overall theme covering both will be safety. Tourism businesses at this first stage need to activate their survival mechanisms in order to continue operating.

Travel will most likely be limited to the Bicol Region, and most people will be travelling for official or essential purposes such as processing of government, business, or academic documents. Tourism enterprises need to manage their cash flows since there will be very little income coming in. The focus during this period is SURVIVAL. Hopefully, DOLE will resume CAMP to cover and prioritize tourism businesses. If not, then tourism MSMEs should take full advantage of the DOF’s Small Business Wage Subsidy (SBWS) to at least augment their employees’ income. LGUs should also assist informal tourism workers such as guides and microenterprises by facilitating their application for wage subsidy under the DOLE’s TUPAD.

This phase is crucial for the immediate survival of tourism enterprises and their employees hence the urgent need for readily-available cash. The important role of the tourism offices will be highlighted during the first 2 to 3 months after the ECQ since they will have to identify, encourage, and support qualified tourism businesses to have access to survival funds. Some microenterprises such as travel and tourism enterprises may see the need to consolidate their resources (join forces) to save on cash and protect or combine their remaining client base. The government must introduce safety measures to protect employees before they can be allowed to return to their workplace. Regular monitoring by the DOT, LGUs and their tourism offices must be conducted to ensure that tourism businesses are complying with social distancing, protection, and reporting policies.

Safety will occupy all spaces of industry and government interventions during Phase 1. Minimum health standards must be put in place to ensure the safety of both employees and clients.

Businesses need to prioritize on their cash flow management and liquidity so they can retain their current employees. NGAs and LGUs have to facilitate and assist businesses so they can avail of subsidies being granted through relevant programs like the Small Business Wage Subsidy (SBWS) and possible rent and utility support c/o the LGUs.

However, special attention should also be given to freelance or independent tourism workers such as local guides and boatmen. Since they are informal tourism workers, they risk being excluded from government support programs. DOLE's TUPAD Program can be utilized as well as the respective LGUs' livelihood programs.


Phase 2 (4-9 months after ECQ lifting, September 2020-February 2021)

For the second phase, the industry's main objective is to rethink business as they know it. The government's objective at this stage is to stabilize the industry. The effective theme for both would be localization. Given the expected scarcity in clients, there is a need for tourism businesses to seriously rethink their business models. Because the tourism and travel landscape has been inevitably changed, businesses need to find new sources of revenue.

The government will probably organize small-scale MICE activities such as seminars and trainings which require physical participation. This will benefit accommodations and MICE facilities. The DOT and LGUs can also take this opportunity to retrain and retool displaced tourism workers to make them more relevant to the "new normal" landscape. They should also establish linkages with government financing institutions and facilitate applications of tourism enterprises for soft loans in relation to these businesses' new business models.

Depending on how the infection rate is managed in Metro Manila, Bicol can expect a slow and steady return of domestic tourists, mostly traveling by land. Many inter-regional travel will be by government employees and officials. Government-organized events such as seminars and trainings will crucial sources of revenue for accommodations and MICE facilities. Majority of travel will be for personal and leisure purposes. Ample training and preparation for proper social-distancing and sanitizing protocols must be conducted during Phase 1.

At this stage, tourism enterprises should rebuild their businesses and client base by focusing on inbound domestic tourists. Tourism enterprises must have applied for and secured the necessary requirements during Phase 1 to avail of the loan facilities offered by the DBP (RESPONSE), LBP (I-Rescue), DTI-SBC’s (P3-ERF). Suppliers such as farmers and fisherfolk should also access the DA-ACPC’s zero-interest loans during Phase 1. The LGU and DOT can establish special offices to assist tourism enterprises and suppliers or retool existing tourism offices to facilitate.

There will be a fundamental shift in the demand for tourism workers. Restaurants will rely more on take-out and delivery services, reducing the need for servers. However, accommodations and resorts will see clients demanding higher sanitation and housekeeping standards. This may mean an increase in job opportunities for housekeeping staff. The DOT can conduct and increase the frequency of housekeeping training activities during Phase 2 in anticipation of the return of domestic travelers. Housekeeping training modules must be updated to reflect the radical shift towards medical disinfection against viruses.

Phase 3 (10-18 months after ECQ lifting, March-November 2021)

Phase 3 will begin at around a year from the lifting of the ECQ, sometime around March 2021, and last until November or December. At this stage, the tourism industry's objective would be to rebrand businesses. The government's mission would be to support businesses, and the cross-cutting theme will be domestic travel.

Depending on the commercial availability of a vaccine against Covid-19, domestic travel might return to around 75% of pre-ECQ levels. International tourists may regain confidence to travel to the country, depending on their own economic conditions. Tourists from western countries may resume traveling back to tropical destinations from the fourth quarter of 2021 onwards.

During Phase 3, it will become apparent that the largest source of revenues for tourism businesses would be domestic tourists. All but the most essential of business travel will be gone. People will travel within the Philippines for pleasure and leisure and they will avoid overcrowded destinations. Lesser-known destinations will see an increase in the number of visitors. Exclusivity over the use of facilities such as vehicles will be the norm.

Consequently, the cost of taking a vacation will be much higher, further limiting travel to segments with sufficient financial capacity. This will eventually lead to lower impact travel and the advent of sustainable tourism. The DOT and LGUs can take full advantage of this by promoting businesses and destinations that support and implement sustainable tourism practices.

In terms of destination management, the government must come to the realization that the international tourism and travel industry will undergo a significant change in terms of market preferences. Travelers will understandably be wary of visiting popular destinations frequented by people. The next “big thing” will be lesser-known destinations and attractions. To avoid another repeat of over-commercialization, destination planners and managers need to impose limits on carrying capacity and screen potential visitors. The focus should be on quality tourists, not quantity. In the lull left behind by the rapid decline in international travel, governments can adopt truly sustainable measures to protect natural and cultural resources and avoid exploitation. This approach will also boost micro, small, and medium tourism enterprises located in less popular tourist attractions.

By this time, tourism enterprises in Bicol must have rebuilt their brands or rebranded entirely, identified new markets, and diversified their products. Digital proficiency is now a fundamental and sought-after asset. Increased collaboration between industry players is now a norm. The tourism industry in Bicol must embrace the idea of a circular economy and localize their supply chains, learning from the mistakes of too much reliance on global logistics.

Phase 4 (19 months after ECQ lifting, December 2021 onwards)

More than a year and a half from the lifting of the ECQ, Bicol's tourism industry will be entering Phase 4. This particular stage of the industry's recovery will see the gradual normalization of business.

The main objective of the industry will be to renew itself while the government's objective will be to sustain the industry's recovery. At this stage, sustainable tourism must be the mainstay of any destination or tourism enterprise operating in Bicol.

The global GDP has recovered to levels nearing those before the pandemic. The vaccine for Covid-19 has been in production and is being distributed to all affected countries. Vaccination programs are now implemented for the general population. International business travelers exhibit cautious optimism.

Depending on the global economy, the country and Bicol may see the resumption of international travel. Tourism businesses would do well to shift their focus to quality clients over quantity, adopt lower-impact travel, shorten their supply chains, and be part of a circular economy. Government must then enable and support destinations and businesses to sustain these efforts.

Tourism enterprises in Bicol incorporate medical safety protocols in their operations. Tourism enterprises who form strong business partnerships with suppliers and competitors stand a stronger chance of weathering future emergencies.

Here is a summary of the different objectives for both industry and government for each phase, as well as the cross-cutting themes.

For industry, the objectives are: RETAIN resources, RETHINK business, REBRAND businesses, and RENEW the industry.

The government's objective are: the SURVIVAL of businesses, to STABILIZE the industry, SUPPORT businesses, and SUSTAIN recovery.

At each particular phase, the underlying themes are: SAFETY, LOCALIZATION, DOMESTIC TRAVEL, and SUSTAINABLE TOURISM.

When the crisis began, people initially thought that we should expect the same pattern of recovery for tourism and travel. The metrics has always been the number of tourists traveling. People still expect that when the dust settles, we can see a steady climb in the number of travelers until it reaches pre-pandemic levels. Here is an example of how conventional thinking would project the recovery of the industry:

However, this present crisis now provides us with the opportunity to "reset" our industry and possibly undo the negative practices we have been used to such as overtourism and exploitation of resources.

Instead of focusing solely on the number of tourists as the only way to measure tourism growth, we can strive to achieve the same level of revenue with fewer travelers. This will help us avoid overcrowding of attractions and help in a more equitable distribution of tourists and revenues.

The circumstances surrounding this crisis calls into question our faulty understanding of how our tourism and travel industry must operate. We must now understand and agree that profitability can be attained while reducing the negative impacts of tourism.

Sustainable tourism can be achieved by encouraging the adaptive reuse of existing tourism resources and facilities. Tour companies can hire local transportation providers to reduce CO2 emissions. Tourism enterprises can shorten their supply chains by engaging local guides and service providers. And finally, destination planners and managers can impose limitations on the number of visitors to natural and cultural attractions, reducing the health risks to travelers in the process.

To recap, we need to do three things in Bicol to make sure our tourism industry can survive, adapt, and thrive:

1. Quickly adopt survival mechanisms (government subsidies, employee protection policies)

2. Access fiscal and non-fiscal support and focus on low-hanging fruits (low-interest loans from government financial institutions, shift to regional and domestic travel)

3. Future-proof ourselves (digital proficiency, product and market diversification)

It won’t be an easy road to recovery. Businesses will close, jobs will be lost. But if we take stock of where we are and what we need to do, businesses will remain open or reopen, and jobs will be kept or created. Nothing worth doing is ever easy but things can get easier if we do it together.

This pandemic has shown us the inevitability of disruption to our tourism and travel industry. It has revealed our weaknesses in terms of focusing mainly on quantity rather than quality.

Moving beyond the horizon set by this crisis, we would do well to shift to a new paradigm wherein we consider the constraints and fragility of our natural and cultural resources, as well as the impact of overtourism on our society.

The way to the future is clear: cheap travel is out and sustainable tourism is in.