[OPINION] Ilonggos are wooed to travel closer-to-home yet ambiguities abound

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This year, Panay Island made a pioneered entry in Tripadvisor’s Top 25 Popular Tourist Destination in Asia. The 20th spot that it earned served as a breather for Panay whose tourism sector is struggling to slowly stand up from months of knock out as a result of multiple blows delivered by the Coronavirus.

Tourism regional director Helen J. Catalbas appreciated the recognition saying that the Travelers’ Choice Award by Tripadvisor was attained through the cooperation and collaboration of various tourism stakeholders during an online guesting with the Iloilo Metropolitan Times. 

The program host Rhod Tecson asked: Can Panay Island sustain the title amid the pandemic? Expectedly, the regional director sounded optimistic of the prospect of a sustained recognition by encouraging the Ilonggos to start traveling within their respective localities while observing quarantine protocols.

I picked up three major points from the discussion of Director Catalbas. First, travel by locals within their provinces or municipalities or what I call closer-to-home travel is a valuable trigger for tourism under the new normal; second, farm tourism sites are now the premium destination; and third, tourism revitalization requires that LGUs take an active role by providing essential support.

Closer-to-home travel. I agree with Director Catalbas that most locals have yet to fully explore the tourism gems within their localities. Many health advocates are likewise open on the idea of closer-to-home vacations as a necessary respite from months of home confinement because of sporadic quarantine restrictions.

According to Director Catalbas, if one percent of Western Visayas’ 8-million population will be travelling within local destination, it will enable a gradual revival of tourism activities. It can also usher in a resumption of tourism livelihood activities and reactivate vital tourism enterprises.

Closer-to-home destinations are fairly low risk for these are relatively uncrowded sites. But local travelers have to be mindful of the periodic changes of quarantine procedures following policy issuances by the National Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases and with supplementary executive orders by the LGUs through the Local Chief Executives (LCEs) or the Mayor.

It is difficult, however, for local travelers to keep up with the nuances in the policies like what it meant when a city or municipality is placed under the ECQ, GCQ, or MGCQ. Which among the three categories allows a traveler to go places and which one tells you that you cannot. This is an ambiguity which discourages a local traveler to move from place to place, especially if the traveler is an OFW returnee who has underwent testing, who holds a negative result, and who completed a 14-day quarantine . 

This ambiguity is further compounded by a weak information flow and the lack of tourism focused advisory for travelers from the end of DOT-VI. In particular, travelers have to make a surgical search among LGUs online site or social media accounts when a municipality or a barangay with a tourism site is placed on a lockdown. These information are not readily available on DOT-VI’s Facebook page.

Region VI is composed of 4,000+ barangays, 16 cities, and 117 municipalities. Keeping up with the latest local situation and staying informed about varying policies is a real challenge for a local traveler. The ambiguities requires an intervention from the tourism agency so that uncertainties are narrowed down and local travelers can move with ease in spite of the pandemic.

Farm tourism spots. Farm tourism sites are ultimate attraction under the period of the pandemic for these are safe spots who holds a natural adaptive characteristic for health protocols. Physical distancing is easy to enforce with its wide open spaces; one sit apart dining is not a problem; its outdoor setting is splendid for ventilation; and food are nutritious and healthy for these are mostly farm-to-table. 

Farm tourism sites are perfect for local visitors for these are family-oriented venues as described by Director Catalbas. It goes without saying, however, that it is not easier to travel to a farm tourism spot in a neighboring municipality. Even for just a day trip, a local traveler needs to examine the prevailing quarantine category imposed by the IATF on the town and barangay to be informed of the health standards being enforced.

These intermittent changes in quarantine categories is another ambiguity which reveals DOT-VI’s lack the communication strategy. Iloilo City, for instance, has returned to a Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) category starting Sept. 1. Does this mean that Iloilo City residents can now visit farm tourism sites? The answer is yes and no – yes, for those between 21 to 59 years old and no if you happen to fall under Section 5 of IATF’s Omnibus Guidelines on the Implementation of Community Quarantine. 

Section 5 (No. 3) emphasized that “any person below twenty-one (21) years old, those who are sixty (60) years old and above, those with immunodeficiency, comorbidity, or other health risks, and pregnant women shall be required to remain in their residences at all times.” 

The nuanced policies can send a confusing stop-go signs to would be local travelers. On one hand, the tourism office incites that local travel is allowed, while on the other, we hear declarations from Local Chief Executives (LCEs) discouraging non-essential travel. Going to a farm tourism site is one of those non-essential travel.

In addition, the effort to promote farm tourism remains unsynchronized between DOT-VI and farm tourism service providers. Some of the Facebook pages of farm tourism spots have pinned advisories that they are closed for visitors while the timelines of others are not updated. The inconsistency is dispiriting for a would be traveler. 

If farm tourism is a promising sector that can help spur the local economy under an ongoing pandemic, the tourism agency needs a more purposive effort that is directed on the public – local travelers – and not only on service providers and frontliners. We need local travelers to spend yet capacity support is not directed on them.

LGU support. Tourism revitalization requires an LGU support. The reality, however, is that tourism revival has yet to occupy the centerstage among LGU rehabilitation priorities. Many LCEs do not possess the balancing ability between firefighting Covid-19 and stimulating economic activities, as such, local resources is quickly depleting. The economy from the tourism side will not move. 

Now, can Panay Island sustain the title given by Tripadvisor amid the pandemic? It is an irrelevant question at this time. What is relevant today are priority actions that will help address the challenges being faced by the tourism sector considering the many ambiguities; the actual lack of synchronicity between various stakeholders as a result of unprecedented disruption; disproportionate resource support, deficient capacities, and unclear programs.

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