SWEEPER BUS. Department of Tourism Region 8 Director Karina Rosa Tiopes and a member of the regional office response team brief the passengers on protocols such as social distancing inside the bus shortly before departure. The tourists — 74 boarded four sweeper buses and 10 rode their own vehicles, expressed relief for the trip back home after being stranded in the region since the start of the travel restrictions due to the enhanced community quarantine. (DOT photo)

MANILA – At least 84 domestic tourists stranded in Eastern Visayas since March have returned to their respective homes with the assistance of the Department of Tourism (DOT) and local government units.

The four buses left Palo, Leyte shortly before 6 p.m. Friday last week for the 24-hour journey to the National Capital Region (NCR) and other areas in Luzon, including Daraga, Albay and Baao, Camarines Norte.

The tourists — 74 boarded four sweeper buses and 10 rode their own vehicles, expressed relief for the trip back home after being stranded in the region since the start of the travel restrictions due to the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).

Businesswoman Anilda Albarracin who visited Merida, Leyte thanked the DOT for the support given to her from the time she sought assistance online along with the others who were stranded in Tacloban City and various localities in Eastern Visayas.

“I’m so happy to return to Manila but I’m going to miss the food, particularly the fresh seafood and the people who are very accommodating,” Albarracin said.

Having been stranded after visiting the fascinating Kalanggaman Island in Palompon, Leyte, Adrian Michael Tagumpay of Baguio City said DOT’s help is "godsent".

“We appreciate the warmth of the people here. They really took care of my family. And we thank God for the assistance DOT Region 8 Office extended to us which is truly godsent,” Tagumpay said.

Sharlaine May Balagapo of Mandaluyong City visited relatives in Sulat, Eastern Samar last March 12 and had her flights back home repeatedly cancelled due to the nationwide lockdown but her hopes of returning to Manila lit up when she came across the DOT Facebook page.

When she found out that the DOT was helping stranded domestic tourists, as well as foreigners, she registered and the DOT team kept in touch with her until she was included in the sweeper bus trips.

“I’d like to thank the DOT for the trip and all the great stuff they gave us. But like General Douglas MacArthur promised, I shall return to Eastern Visayas to see the beautiful islands and some of the friendliest people I have met,” Balagapo said.

“We are pleased to extend a helping hand to our domestic tourists who are the backbone of the tourism industry. We are glad to partner with the LGUs and the regional government offices in continuing public service amid a global pandemic and typhoon calamity,” DOT Region 8 Director Karina Rosa Tiopes said.

The four sweeper buses were used earlier for the “Balik Probinsya” program, with Leyte province being one of the pilot areas, prompting Leyte Governor Leopoldo Dominico Petilla to coordinate with the DOT in connection with its ongoing assistance to stranded travelers.

The DOT-8 and Petilla made representations with the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) main office which readily approved the proposal, allowing the regional office's response team to conduct a 48-hour registration period in the wake of Typhoon Ambo’s devastation.

At least 84 distressed travelers signed up, originating from Leyte, 44; Northern Samar, four, and Samar, 11; and Southern Leyte, 25. They were picked up at Catbalogan City, Calbayog City, and Allen, Northern Samar.

Also, on hand in the pre-boarding briefing and protocols were regional representatives of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the LTFRB for the issuance of the Travel Authority.

The DOT-8 in coordination with the various LGUs made sure all confirmed sweeper trip passengers were also given instructions and possessed the required medical clearances and other required documents.

An Waray Party-List headed by Rep. Bem Noel gave each passenger a PHP500 meal allowance.

Other assistance the DOT-8 provided to the travelers include free breakfast and lunch during the assembly time in preparation for the bus trip and distribution of care packs, tokens, thank you/safe trip/stay safe and well notes.

At least 48 of the passengers reside in NCR; 15 in Region 4-A (Calabarzon); nine in Region 3 (Central Luzon); five in Cordillera Administrative Region; four in Region 2 (Cagayan Valley); two in Region 5, and one in Region 1 (Ilocos Region). (DOT PR)