PHOTO: STR / AFP
The white sandy beaches of one of the world’s most famous vacation islands in the Philippines have reopened to tourists as the country with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Southeast Asia tries to salvage its battered economy.
Like neighbors Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the Philippines has been hit hard by the loss of tourism revenue and is turning to domestic travelers with deals and enticements to try and salvage what’s left of the industry until international travel safely resumes.
By opening up the paradisiacal Boracay Island in central Philippines with its clear blue waters and picture-perfect coastlines, officials hope to rebuild the tourism sector with its most prized possession.
“What could be a better way to herald the revival of Philippine tourism than the reopening of the world-renowned Boracay Island?” the country’s tourism chief Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said during an online briefing to mark the opening Thursday.
But only 35 visitors, including seven people from the capital Manila, arrived on the island on its first day back in business, a sign that people still do not feel safe enough to travel.
Rules are more stringent for those who decide to make the trip.
Tourists are required to wear masks while strolling Boracay’s powdery white sand beach, but they’re allowed to take them off while swimming. Bars and clubs on the island remain closed but there it no liquor ban unlike many places in the Philippines, which has had one of the world’s longest-running lockdowns.
The country has reported a total of nearly 320,000 COVID cases putting it in the top 20 countries globally with the most confirmed infections.
“We urge our visitors to be responsible tourists. Follow the guidelines, respect the rules. We can never be too complacent, even on vacation, we must adhere to the minimum health protocols. Let’s wear our mask when possible,” the tourism chief said.
Consistently voted as a top island destination, Boracay Island normally attracts millions of tourists from around the world each year, with droves of beachgoers from China, South Korea and Japan taking direct flights.
But in April 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte closed down the island for six months to rehabilitate what he called a “cesspool” of trash and plastic littering the scenery. The hospitality industry was still reeling from huge losses sustained in that closure when the pandemic hit.
Flights between the capital Manila and the island have resumed. But the tourism department did not say when foreigners coming directly from other countries would be allowed to visit again.
Under the new opening, it will also be more expensive to make the trip.
A negative swab test result must be taken 72 hours before entering the island, and the most trusted tests can cost up to $200 in the Philippines.