Just a few weeks ago, the Philippines took pride in having one of the lowest number of Covid-19 patients in the world, even reaping a commendation from the World Health Organization. The encouraging news, coupled with the country’s willingness to keep most international flights open, encouraged many foreign tourists to pursue their travel plans to the Philippines.
But things, as we know, have swiftly changed. The country has seen a staggering rise in Covid-19 cases, compelling the government to declare an Expanded Community Quarantine. This has led to the suspension of all domestic flights, with thousands of tourists now stranded in various provinces.
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The Department of Tourism (DOT) confirmed, there are still over 2,000 foreign tourists stranded in the country. More than half are in Central Visayas, where the provinces of Cebu, Bohol, Siquijor and Negros Oriental are found.
“We are still in the process of profiling them by nationality, but so far, majority of them are, in order –French, German, American and Russian”, said Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, in a Viber message.
Tourists complain that although outbound international flights remain open, the sudden cancellation of all domestic flights have left them stuck and unable to reach any international airport, despite their valiant effort.
Kathryn White, a British National stranded in Boracay, knows this too well. In an online conversation, she explained that she and her companion, tried to leave early on, but still found it impossible to secure a flight.
“We tried to get back out as soon as we heard about the lockdown, but flights started to be cancelled. We booked two, one to Cebu and one to Clark just so we could get back to an international airport and they were both cancelled, and the money has not yet been refunded,” she said.
As a remedy, so-called “sweeper flights” to collect all stranded foreign nationals in different provinces, and bring them to cities with international flights, were arranged by the DOT. But they have not been enough to fly everyone out.
The agency has already assisted over 3,000 foreign nationals, but with over 2,000 still stranded, much work remains. As of press time, the DOT still could not say when new sweeper flights would be available.
Gena is a Filipina based overseas. She and her British boyfriend Michael (not their real names) have also been trying to leave Boracay for days.
“The DOT office [Boracay] really has no information. They just write your details and say they will call or email (when a flight becomes available),” she said.
Michael added, they, and many other tourists stranded on the island, just want to know if and when they can go home.
“There’s the lack of information, and people just want to know if there is a chance they can leave. Who knows, it (the lockdown) can be extended for another 30 or 60 days”, Michael explained.
White echoed the sentiment. “I really do feel anxious. What if these flights don’t happen? What if the government here goes into further lock down? What if Philippine Airlines cancels its international flights? So many ifs and buts.”
A check on the DOT’s Facebook page, and that of various embassies, showed comments and messages from foreign nationals, stuck in popular tourist destinations, such as Bohol, Palawan, Siargao, and many others, sharing the same sentiment. Their comments on these Facebook pages have gone unanswered.
In a press statement, the DOT advised foreign nationals trying to get on a rescue flight to directly coordinate with their embassy.
“… the embassies will be better conduits to facilitate arrangements with the participating carriers,” it said.
White lamented, however, that they and other tourists in Boracay have been trying to do just that but have not gotten a reply from their embassies either.
Fortunately, a glimmer of hope appeared, when rumors of rescue flights began to circulate Friday night on Boracay Island. Stranded tourists scrambled to get on any of the three flights the next day. White and her companion were able to secure seats, but Gena and Michael were not.
At this point, Michael said they are starting to consider other options. “Finding a cheap apartment here in Boracay is our plan B,” he relented.
Meanwhile, White and her partner decided to fly straight out of Manila the same day, and endure a 26-hour flight, just to be sure they make it back to London.
She said her country is not on a lockdown, and if it ever declares one, at least she will be home.
For tourists needing a hotel in Manila until their flight home, the following is a list of hotels still accepting guests as of March 21, 2020, according to the Department of Tourism.
Golden Phoenix Manila
Joy Nostalg Hotel and Suites
Manila New Coast Hotel
Manila Ace Hotel and Suites
New World Makati
The Linden Suites
Oxford Suites Makati
The Bellevue Manila
B Hotel Alabang
B Hotel Quezon City
Crowne Plaza Manila
Vertis North Seda
Seda Residences Makati