Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco (PNA File photo)

MANILA – After reeling from the devastating effects of the pandemic for more than two years, the Philippines is finally ready to usher in an "era of tourism".

Since the onset of the global health crisis that shuttered borders and grounded flights, the Department of Tourism (DOT) together with different agencies and stakeholders had been crafting protocols to pandemic-proof travel within the country.

Armed with these guidelines, the country successfully reopened borders in February.

The country also eased various pandemic protocols from lifting quarantine and testing requirements for vaccinated passengers to making masks outdoors optional.

For DOT, 2022 proved to be a year of gradual recovery for the sector as it exceeded targets and outdid figures from 2021.

Based on its latest data, the tourism industry already hit over PHP149 billion in revenue and 2.46 million in foreign arrivals, surpassing its original 1.7 million target.

This 2023, the DOT is determined to further boost the travel sector keeping in mind the lessons it learned from the past two years while it “actively innovates in order to surmount the challenges of our time”.

Under the new administration, the DOT is pursuing a seven-point agenda, with a specific focus on travel convenience and enhancing the destinations’ connectivity and quality.

‘Infra development’

At a year-end assessment briefing, Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco said DOT would continue working with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works and Highways to improve infrastructures in key destinations as well as enhance the country’s airports and seaports.

“For the longest time, we have focused on promoting our country and yet we wonder why it is we never seem to be able to surmount our number 5 and number 6 position in the ASEAN,” she said.

“This time, we have chosen to look inwards to examine what it is that we can do apart from promoting the Philippines to truly give our country a fighting chance and become a tourism powerhouse in Asia. That inward-looking perspective has allowed us to discover the many things that we can still improve about our destinations,” she added.

Thanks to this cooperation, the Philippines will soon unveil an “improved version” of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 2, featuring Filipino elements, furniture, organic materials and plants.

The initiative will be replicated in other gateways, including the Davao International Airport and Cebu City Pier One.

In addition, DOT is in talks with airlines, both domestic and international, to resume suspended pre-pandemic routes and to add more flights going to key Philippine destinations.

Moreover, the DOT actively works to fast-track the digitalization of tourism transactions nationwide.

Just this month, it inked an agreement with the Department of Information and Communications Technology to integrate tourism transactions into one system and improve internet connectivity in 94 identified destinations.

‘Smooth travel experience’

Basic as it may be, DOT is also building more rest areas to provide visitors better travel experience while in the country.

“What we’ve done in the past five months was to conduct very aggressive groundbreakings of tourist rest areas all over the Philippines. I’ve always said that one of the most basic essentials for any journey is the need to have clean and decent restrooms,” Frasco said.

“[W]hile it may be basic, we finally decided to address this basic infrastructure need,” she said.

As of this posting, the country has already broken ground in several tourist sites like Manolo Fortich in Bukidnon, Samal Island in Davao del Norte, Baguio, Dauis in the island of Panglao in Bohol, and Carmen, Medellin, Carcar City and Moalboal in Cebu.

The agency is also working with the Department of Health to improve the availability of emergency services, including the provision of hyperbaric chambers in Philippine dive sites.

To further ease entry into the country, the DOT began talks with the Department of Foreign Affairs to establish an electronic visa platform in key markets and to lengthen the allowed period of stay for non-visa countries.

DOT said it will focus on developing the Chinese and Indian markets for visa facilitation services.

‘Philippine Experience’

The anticipated “Philippine Experience” caravan, meanwhile, is slated to be launched in 2023.

The new campaign will provide tourists a window not only into the country’s world-class destinations but also into the Filipino heritage and all the nuances that make Philippine culture unique.

“We feel that by heralding the best of the Filipino culture to the rest of the world, we would be able to give our country an opportunity to be at par and to stand shoulder to shoulder with our ASEAN neighbors who have been able to strongly lobby for their culture as well,” Frasco said.

The DOT is diversifying its tourism product portfolio going beyond the promotion of sun and beach, dive, marine sports and nature travel.

Under development are education, health and cruise tourism, food and gastronomy tourism, culture and heritage tourism, halal tourism, as well as film tourism. For the first time, the DOT also identified arts as a tourism offering, increasing support for the creative industry.

In addition, Mindanao is on top of DOT’s priority list following President Ferdinand R. Marcos’ directive to fully reopen the region for tourism.

“[W]e have been in very close coordination with the Department of National Defense (DND) with whom we will be signing a Memorandum of Agreement for purposes of ensuring that the bedrock of our reopening of Mindanao to tourism is peace and security,” Frasco said.

“We’re very confident in the success of this reopening considering that we are going to be working closely not only with the DND but also with the DILG (Department of the Interior and Local Government), as well as the (RTF-ELCAC) Regional Task Force Ending Local Communist Armed Conflict (RTF-ELCAC),” she added.

The agencies, she said, will identify areas that will be piloted for the Mindanao reintroduction.

‘Optimistic’

In 2023, DOT has set a moving target of 4.8 million foreign tourist arrivals and at least USD5.8 billion in revenue.

“[W]e’re confident that while we will lay these down a benchmark, we will try as best we can to have an even more optimistic number of arrivals in the year to come. But we’re putting that down as our baseline," Frasco said.

With an array of tourism programs in the pipeline, Frasco foresees “very exciting and optimistic” years ahead for the industry. (PNA)