MANILA—The Philippines' tourism chief expressed confidence that the "slow and safe" reopening of domestic travel has not been the reason for the recent spike in new COVID-19 infections in the country, which hit a record-high on Friday.
During the launch of its 3-day promotion event for the local diving industry, the Philippine International Dive Expo (Phidex), Tourism Sec. Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said the high number of newly reported COVID-19 cases recently could “never” be blamed for the gradual reopening of domestic tourism.
"Since we've started the slow but sure reopening of tourism destinations, no outbreak of COVID because of tourism, never, not because of tourism," Puyat explained.
The Department of Tourism (DOT) has been aggressive in promoting local tourism, one sector hit hard by the health crisis. This, after the government strictly regulated domestic and international travel since March last year.
Government in late February, however, eased travel protocol across provinces and cities. The new rules included the removal of mandatory COVID-19 testing and quarantine for local travelers except if they exhibit virus symptoms.
The Department of the Interior and Local Government had defended this move, blaming instead the public’s supposed complacency on minimum health protocols leading to the surge, and not the easing of travel protocols, a decision officials said was “backed by science.”
With the Philippines seeing another surge in daily coronavirus cases, meanwhile, Puyat said: "It is very important, especially for the upcoming Holy Week, for all travelers to understand that a lot of tourist destinations ask for tests before travel."
She also emphasized that being negative for COVID-19 does not mean “doing whatever you want to do.”
"Even if you're negative for COVID, this is not a license for you to party, to do mass gatherings . . . You really have to follow the minimum health and safety protocols," she said.
This includes wearing face masks and face shields — especially in enclosed areas — and keeping a safe distance from other people especially those they will meet outside from their homes.
The Philippines on Friday recorded its highest daily tally yet since the pandemic hit the country, with 7,103 new COVID-19 infections. The remaining active cases, 73,264, is also considered the highest in nearly 7 months.
PHILIPPINE INTERNATIONAL DIVE EXPO
Puyat said that the 3-day event, which was established in 2019, would be done virtually this year not just to follow physical distancing measures but also to be able to reach global markets.
Buyers from 16 key markets are expected to participate in the event, namely: Australia, China, France, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, UK, and USA.
Aside from Phidex, the tourism chef also shared the agency's other programs aimed at further developing the local diving industry, which she described as a priority in the country's tourism development plan.
The programs, she added, would be launched in emerging dive destinations such as Camiguin and Puerto Galera within the year.
Local diving sites have reopened since October last year, after the Philippine Commission on Sports and Scuba Diving (PCSSD) issued health and safety guidelines for the activity.
Puyat said 288 establishments already applied for PCSSD accreditation, which was among the requirements to reopen businesses. Some 140 establishments have accreditation and were already allowed to operate.
PCSSD commissioner Bo Mancao said sustainability has also been a key element in the reopening of local diving sites, especially as the divers themselves have been staunch advocates of marine conservation.
Phidex will also feature topics on marine conservation, marine protected area management and ecosystem restoration, promoting conservation through underwater films, and the conservation of sharks.
The government has sought restarting the tourism sector after COVID-19 lockdowns were imposed, forcing the cancellation of non-essential movements such as leisure trips, and halting public transport, among others.
Puyat had said that the country would boost local tourism in a bid to restart the travel industry, even as COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.