Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo Puyat was sporting a happy, relaxed vibe when we met her Tuesday at the Balay Puti restaurant in Silay City, Negros Occidental. With a new administration coming, it was inevitable our talk eventually led to her thoughts about the end of her term as DOT chief, a post she held in the last four years.
Puyat was appointed to the post by President Rodrigo Duterte in May 8, 2018, following the controversial Wanda Teo’s resignation. While presumptive Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has yet to name her replacement, the DOT chief said she’s happy to relinquish the position to the next appointee, knowing the tourism sector has finally re-opened and is on its way to recovery after two years of pandemic lockdowns and various restrictions.
Looking back, hers wasn’t “a normal DOT stint.” During her tenure, Philippine tourism jewel Boracay had to be shut down for six months for what turned out to be a much-needed rehabilitation. Some beaches in El Nido were also closed due to noncompliance to environmental laws. So Puyat had to concentrate on two things—sustainability, to ensure optimal use of environmental resources; and regenerative tourism to help better the lives of the rural communities in those tourism sites.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, the DOT had to redirect its efforts on vaccinating tourism’s many stakeholders. The Tourism chief is now happy to report that 98% of the tourism sector has already been vaccinated. “Ang saya ko na after the two years na open and close [ang tourism sector], we’ve reopened February 10 to foreigners and we have the least restrictions pa—no test upon arrival, no quarantine. This was suggested by the doctors themselves, may basbas nila,” she said in Negros.
Possibly the biggest highlight for Philippine tourism this year was when it hosted the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit last April 20-22. “We had 1,289 delegates from over 50 countries, we had zero Covid cases. So lahat ng akala kong imposible when this pandemic started ay nagawa,” she said, adding that the Philippines was the first to hold a big MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions) event in Asia. “It was a success. In fact, they said that is the gold standard [in holding MICE events]. Our medical team was top of the line. We partnered with Makati Medical Center.” The event, which carried the theme “Rediscovering Travel” brought together travel and tourism leaders from around the world to discuss how they can strengthen recovery measures.
The past four years have been challenging, to say the least. Puyat recalled the difficulty of inviting friends and media to travel around the country with her during the periods when restrictions relaxed. “It was lonely,” she said, looking back at her solitary visits to Boracay, Baguio, Ilocos Sur and Siquijor in 2020 and 2021.
Now that Philippine tourism is almost back in full swing, she said she can pass on the torch to the next DOT chief happy and fulfilled. All the health and safety protocols for the different stakeholders—e.g., accommodation, establishments, tour operators, land transport—are already in place. “At least the next tourism secretary can just focus on her mandate. Yung akin kasi, hindi ko mandate ang ginawa ko,” said Puyat.
The Secretary also acknowledged the people who efficiently managed to perform their tasks despite the limitations brought by the pandemic. This includes DOT-VI regional director Cristine Mansinares who was present during the lunch. “The pandemic showed me kung sino ang magagaling at sino ang hindi. There are many who thrived and bloomed during the pandemic,” offered Puyat. “I hope yung mga taong pinili ko especially during the pandemic stays kasi ang gagaling nila.”
The Covid crisis, she said, brought out the best in Filipinos, who always manage to find solutions despite hardships and emerge from them smiling. The Filipino hospitality remains unrivaled, she added. During the lockdowns when many foreigners where stuck in different islands all over the country, DOT arranged repatriation flights to make sure the tourists got home safe. “Filipino lang ang gumawa noon sa buong mundo,” claimed the Tourism secretary. But many foreigners were also smitten by our paradise islands and admired our hospitality that they decided to stay in the country for good.
After her DOT stint, Puyat said she’ll definitely still be working. “I get bored when I’m not working,” she said. She’s scheduled to start a new job come June, but she refused to go into detail. When asked if she would consider staying in the post should the next administration ask her to, she said, smiling, “End na talaga.” It was a tiring run. “Really very challenging, but fulfilling kasi nabukas ko (ang industry despite the pandemic).” One thing’s for sure though: “When I was with the Department of Agriculture, binitbit ko ang farm tourism dito [sa DOT]. So definitely, bibitbitin ko yun sa next job ko this June,” she said. “It’s something different, so I’m looking forward to it.”