PANGLAO, Bohol -- The island province of Bohol is gearing up to finally welcome leisure tourists starting December 15, 2020 including those from areas under general community quarantine (GCQ) areas like Metro Manila.
Bohol Governor Arthur Yap confirmed that they will be accepting frequent independent travelers of all ages, including senior citizens and minors, in a bid to jumpstart the local economy.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat welcomed the development of easing age restrictions for travel, saying that Christmas is just around the corner and that Filipinos really travel together as a family.
Tour operators and members of the media got to experience first-hand the steps the provincial government of Bohol is taking to fight COVID-19 while cautiously reopening the island to tourists.
If you’re thinking of going to Bohol soon, here’s what you need to know.
Like other destinations that have reopened to leisure tourists, Bohol requires a negative RT-PCR result taken 72 hours before departure, confirmed hotel booking, pre-booked transport and tours, and pre-registration via tourism.bohol.gov.ph. A five-day stay on the island requires no quarantine.
The high cost of the RT-PCR tests has been one of the major deterrents for leisure travel, but is required to curb the spread of COVID-19 and protect the island’s residents.
The Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) is currently finalizing guidelines to provide a 50% subsidy for leisure travelers and tourism frontliners in partnership with the UP Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH), which currently only charges Php 1,800 for a swab test.
What to expect in the airport
If you don’t have a smartphone yet, you’re going to need one for your future trips because of the apps and online forms needed to travel.
Starting November 28, all passengers need to download and use the Traze contact tracing app, a nationwide and unified app that contains basic profile information of travelers. Those taking flights need to scan QR codes in various points at the airport to check in. Travelers who don’t have smartphones will need to ask help from the assistance desk.
Most airlines are operating at a very limited capacity to key destinations, but when they do, tourists may need to get to the airport earlier than usual to comply with the extra requirements, such as sanitizing of luggage, pre-boarding checks of all the requirements, and extra long lines because of physical distancing requirements.
Protocols inside the plane
Because of COVID-19, airlines have increased sanitation and cleaning protocols with deeper and more frequent cleanings. Flight attendants are now dressed in PPE suits with full face masks and face shields.
Airlines are requiring passengers, staff, and crew to wear face masks while on board the plane. Wearing full face shields (half shields are not allowed) inside the airport and airplane is also mandatory.
During our flight to Bohol, we were served single-use mineral water bottles and packed snacks, although it’s up to the passengers if they choose to eat and drink while inside the plane.
Arrival in Bohol
Flights to Bohol now land at the Bohol-Panglao International Airport on Panglao Island, which has replaced the old Tagbilaran Airport as the province’s main entry point for tourists.
One of the most tiresome things about traveling during the pandemic is constantly having to fill up contact tracing forms everywhere you go. Thankfully, Bohol has found a way to establish a system that does away with that.
Visitors who pre-registered via Bohol's website will have been given a unique QR code that can be saved on a smartphone. Upon our arrival at the airport, we were presented with personalized contact tracing cards that contained that unique QR code.
The cards were like our visa around the island. We just had to present these for scanning at respective hotels and establishments we visited, so we no longer had to keep filling up forms manually.
The cards, which bear a picture of a tarsier, also double as a unique souvenir for guests of their “new normal” trip and may be reused for future trips in Bohol.
New normal in hotels
Unlike pre-pandemic travel when you could just travel spontaneously, or choose a hotel to stay in once you get to your destination, tourists now need to pre-book all arrangements including hotels, transportation, and tours to ensure that the establishments are ready to accept guests with the proper health and safety protocols.
One of the major draws in Bohol is the number of premium luxury resorts where guests can cocoon for the duration of their stay and enjoy private amenities like swimming pools, private beachfronts and open-air garden restaurants.
Hotels and resorts in Bohol have really stepped up their efforts to ensure a safe environment for travelers and used the downtime in travel to establish their own health and safety measures. Temperature checks and QR code scanning are done every time a guest arrives and departs from a hotel.
Hotel buffet breakfasts have been replaced with plated meals, while tables and chairs have been rearranged to ensure socially distanced dining without the unsightly plastic sheet barriers that have become the norm in many establishments.
Many of the larger hotels and resorts in Panglao island, which previously catered to the premium international tourist market and large events, have reopened but have so far only been allowed to accept residents of Bohol for staycations.
Many hotels have slashed prices off their regular room rates (some up to 50 percent) and are offering promo rates just to attract tourists once again. So if you think about it, your savings on hotel accommodations could just be channelled for necessary costs like the RT-PCR test. Some hotels have even come up with packages that include the RT-PCR test for guest’s peace of mind.
Expect hotels in Bohol to be way less crowded. Hotels that used to cater to mainstream Chinese tourists and international travelers, or were fully booked during Christmas season in pre-pandemic years, have barely had any business the past few months, meaning if you choose to travel early on, chances are you will get to enjoy the resort all to yourself.
New rules in tours
Tourists in Bohol will need to follow a pre-set itinerary, with trips outside the hotel/resort pre-arranged and done only through DOT-accredited travel and tour agencies. Tour operators will be made liable for visitors who deviate from tours.
Do-it-yourself or DIY tours are currently not allowed to limit contact with locals and control the movement of tourists. For instance, the hotel we stayed in used to offer bicycles that guests could use for free to go around to nearby sights on their own during pre-pandemic travels. Upon inquiry, the front desk staff said they had to suspend operations to prevent tourists from roaming around on their own to comply with the new guidelines.
While this may put a damper on plans of adventure travelers who prefer to explore on their own, the pre-booked transportation and tour arrangements will work well for families, colleagues, and groups traveling together who want a hassle-free way to go sightseeing around the island.
Many of the tours that Bohol is known for have found ways to adapt to the new normal. It helps that most of Bohol’s attractions are nature-based outdoor activities, which are safer.
All island-hopping and snorkeling activities will now depart from a centralized jetty port in Panglao and can no longer be offered directly from different beach resorts around the island. The “one entry, one exit” island-hopping policy will help control and monitor the number of tourists visiting specific islands like Balicasag and Pamilacan island.
The Loboc River Cruise, the floating restaurant previously known for their buffet lunch, has changed its buffet set-up to plated meals and lessened the number of guests seated per table. While live entertainment is still provided, performers serenade tourists from the far end of the boat and all crew visibly wear face masks and shields. A local dance troupe also performs from a platform along the river, which provides a natural barrier from visitors.
Minimum health protocols are also required for tours such as ATV rides around the foothills of the Chocolate Hills and island-hopping and hiking to La Manok Island in Anda. All tour operators and establishments make sure to scan the contact tracing cards of visitors when they arrive.
Everywhere we went, all tourism frontliners, from the hotel staff, servers in restaurants, boatmen, and cultural performers, even in the more remote areas, were wearing face masks and/or face shields to ensure minimum health protocols and protection from tourists.
Get ready to master the art of taking selfies or bring a tripod and remote (or a companion within your travel bubble) because tour guides are no longer allowed to take your souvenir photos to avoid frequent touching of phones and cameras.
Is it worth it?
As a travel writer stuck in Metro Manila since mid-March, I really welcomed the chance to visit Bohol for my first real post-lockdown trip and experience this “new normal” type of travel.
Even before the pandemic, Bohol has been a destination I never mind going back to. Bohol’s beautiful white sand beaches, natural attractions, amazing seafood, eco-friendly resorts, and rich culture always makes the island worth visiting over and over again.
Unlike other popular tourist destinations that have reopened in the Philippines, Bohol offers a diverse range of attractions all in one destination. You get nature, adventure, beaches, hills, great food and culture all in one island.
For those who prefer offbeat destinations or want to explore a rarely seen side of Bohol, the laid-back town of Anda, 2.5 hours by land from Panglao offers a pristine stretch of white beach that would rival Boracay.
But beyond the sights, Bohol’s unique draw is the warmth and hospitality of the people.
There are not a lot of destinations in the country that are open to domestic tourists right now, but I think Bohol is a great choice for families/clans traveling together, intimate destination weddings, honeymooners planning for their a romantic getaway, divers who want a base to explore stunning dive sites and leisure travelers who are raring to travel and take a well-deserved break from pandemic living in Manila.
Bohol has the facilities and safety measures in place to cater to large groups despite the pandemic. They have already been open to MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) and hosted two large events like the PHITEX and MICE Familiarization Tour, proving that with a controlled itinerary, they can be an ideal destination for business travel, corporate team-building, meetings, year-end retreats, and more.
Aside from granting travelers their much-needed rest and recreation after months of being cooped up at home, traveling to Bohol can help revive the once-thriving tourism industry on the island and help displaced tourism workers regain their jobs.
For those who can afford to travel and are willing to go through the extra steps, now is the best time to experience top tourist destinations in the Philippines like Bohol as soon as they reopen because of the reduced rates a and the fact that you will get to enjoy the place to yourself once you get there. The challenging process also tourists appreciate the destination even more.