Virus slows aviation, unnerves markets as PH economy braces for shock

Joel Guinto and Cathy Yang, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 28 2020 01:05 PM | Updated as of Mar 02 2020 09:49 AM

Passengers wearing protective masks walk towards the departure entrance of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, Feb. 18, 2020. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

MANILA (UPDATE) -- On what should be a busy month for bookings of summer holidays in Europe, the head of the Philippines' largest tour agency says she's worried over a slowdown in air travel due to a coronavirus outbreak, the ripple effect of which reverberates in the economy.

Airlines lost up to 100,000 seats per week, as the Philippines restricted travel to and from China, Hong Kong and Macau. The impact of fresh restrictions on South Korea will depend on how it is handled, said Aileen Clemente, president of Rajah Travel Corp and former head of the ASEAN Tourism Association.

South Korea and China are the Philippines' 2 top sources of tourist arrivals. Restrictions in Hong Kong affect travel to Europe since the city serves as a transit point from Manila, alongside Bangkok. South Korea is a transit point for trans-Pacific flights, including those that go to the US, she said.

Philippine Airlines (PAL) said on Friday travel restrictions due to COVID-19 aggravated 2019 losses, pushing it to undertake "business restructuring" that saw 300 ground staff avail of separation.

Cebu Pacific, the Philippines' largest airline, could suffer a P3 billion to P4 billion "swing" in profit due to the virus, said its president, Lance Gokongwei. The impact is expected to be "time-bound" and the carrier can recover with its strong balance sheet, the airline told the stock exchange.

"It's been slow, slower than usual. It's a little bit worrisome because we don't know where it goes from here," Clemente told The Boss on ANC.

The Philippine Stock Exchange Index on Friday slumped towards its worst week since 2011, tracking a global selloff. The benchmark fell the most in 4 years last Wednesday. Foreign investors sold $27.4 million (P1.4 billion) in equities on Thursday, based on Bloomberg data.

"COVID-19 puts clearly at risk our short-term forecasts but the long-term strategy and outlook is still very strong for the Philippines," ATR Asset Management head of equities Julian Tarrobago told Market Edge on ANC.

Should the outbreak stretch to June, it could shave 50 basis points off gross domestic product growth due to slowdowns in exports, manufacturing, and tourism.

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Benjamin Diokno on Thursday signaled deeper interest rate cuts this year, up to 75 basis points from his initial commitment of 50 basis points, to shield the growth from the virus.

The central bank has "a lot of monetary and fiscal space," he told reporters. "I am not totally ruling out additional cuts of 50 bps or 75 bps."

FACE MASKS AND ALCOHOL
 

Passengers wear protective masks inside a crowded train in Manila, Feb. 17, 2020. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Shopping malls, which serve as city centers in the Philippines, deployed free disinfectants for shoppers. Guards at entrances wear face masks, some armed with thermometer guns to screen shoppers.

Consumers have returned to SM Prime Holdings' shopping malls in the Philippines. At the onset of the outbreak in China, malls in the mainland were like "ghost towns," said SM Supermalls President Steven Tan.

Face masks and disinfectants were also deployed in public transport. The operator of LRT-1, which runs from Parañaque in the south to Quezon City in the north, said the virus trimmed ridership.

Ride-hailing platform Grab advised drivers to wear face masks and some cars offer rubbing alcohol strapped behind the front seats for passengers to use.

CHINATOWN SLOWDOWN

Buyers and sellers in Binondo wear masks to protect themselves from the COVID-19. Businesses run as usual despite lower foot traffic and decline in sales. Jessica Fenol, ABS-CBN News

In Manila's centuries-old Chinatown, street vendors and calesa (horse-drawn carriage) drivers reeled from slow sales during the last Lunar New Year, which would have been a peak season.

Tikoy (sticky rice cake) vendor Julie De Goma sold 800 boxes this Lunar New Year compared to the usual 2,000, cutting her total sales to P30,000 from P80,000.

"Napansin ko dito 'yung mga tao parang ayaw na magsilabas, mula nung bago lang. Samantalang dati, anong oras na marami pang tao, ngayong nakaraan, maaga pa wala nang tao,” the 41-year-old mother of 4 told ABS-CBN News.

(I noticed people don't want to go out, especially when reports about the virus came out. Before, the crowd lingers until late at night. Today, the crowd disperses early.)

In Boracay, which is popular among Korean and Chinese tourists, water sports businesses lost 60 percent of their income since the outbreak began late last year, some losing up to 600 customers per day, said Russell Cruz, president of the Boracay Watersports Association.

"Kung dati umo-order ka ng Double Black, Emperador ka muna (When before you order Double Black, you make do with Emperador for now)," he told ABS-CBN News, likening his colleagues' plight to a shift to brandy from expensive whisky.

ECONOMIC MULTIPLIER

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In early February, the Department of Tourism reported P10 billion in losses. That was before COVID-19 began to spread quickly in countries other than China. South Korea and Italy have reported new cases in the hundreds.

The government is promoting domestic tourism to pick up the slack from the slowdown in international travel. A nationwide mall sale is being planned to promote the Philippines as a shopping destination, said Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat.

Puyat said President Rodrigo Duterte expressed willingness to go to Boracay to encourage Filipinos to support local tourism.

"What we have to tell our tourists is that it's safe to come to the country, no local transmission, and the tourism establishments are ready," Puyat told ANC's Headstart in a Feb. 18 interview.

The Philippines has so far confirmed 3 COVID-19 cases, all tourists from Wuhan, China, where the virus was first reported.

Clemente, the tour agency head, said the government's estimated losses could be higher.

"Because it's an economic multiplier, it's going to be very big in terms of the losses," she said. Promoting domestic travel will, at the minimum, keep businesses operating, she said.

"If you're talking about it on the domestic front, you're moving funds from one pocket to another," she said.

The COVID-19 outbreak puts into question how much the world has learned from the SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome pandemic of the early 2000s, Clemente said.

The outbreak appeared to have slowed in China, with fewer cases reported. Beijing so far totaled 2,788 deaths and 78,824 infections.

Asked about prospects for tourism, with the disease spreading outside China, Clemente said: "It's wait and see, because I really have no crystal ball."