Travelers find bright spot in tourism lull as world hunkers due to virus fears

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 11 2020 09:02 PM | Updated as of Mar 11 2020 09:50 PM

Only a few tourists are on Boracay Island on Wednesday as tourist arrivals drop due to the coronavirus scare. Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

MALAY, Aklan- German national Lukas Kissner soaks up the sun while lying on the powdery sand of Boracay Island one Wednesday afternoon as the rest of the world lock themselves at home for fear of getting sick with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Kissner, who arrived in the top Philippine tourist spot on Tuesday, is one in only 400 foreigners roaming Boracay on Wednesday in what should normally be the start of the arrival of thousands of foreign tourists for the summer break.

“I find it more exciting this way because they say that this, Boracay, is not as busy as it usually is,” he told ABS-CBN News.

“It’s sad to hear that [there are fewer tourists] but in a way, I’m enjoying actually that there are fewer people since I get to see more of the island itself,” he said.

Tourist arrivals in Boracay have seen a sharp decline since the outbreak of COVID-19 last month due to fears of catching the virus. The Philippines has so far confirmed 49 cases of the disease, and President Rodrigo Duterte has declared a state of public health emergency and suspended classes in Metro Manila this week. 

A foreigner gets a tan in tourist favorite Boracay island which has seen a drop in tourist arrivals due to the virus scare. Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

As of March 10, Boracay saw its daily tourist arrivals halved to 2,417 compared to 5,227 on the same day last year, data from the Malay Municipal Tourism Office showed.

Tourist arrivals in February for the island meanwhile dropped by 40 percent to 103, 834 from the 172,695 recorded in the same month in 2019.

The drop in tourist arrivals has prompted airlines and government-accredited hotels to slash their prices by as much as 70 percent to lure Filipinos into traveling around the Philippines. Local businesses, and tour operators on the island have also lowered the prices of their services just to survive operations.

“We’re finding ways to sustain [tourism] and we’re making a strategy so that one way or another, there are still tourists coming in to Boracay,” said Felix Delos Santos Jr., chief tourism operations officer of Malay town.

WIN FOR TRAVELERS, LOSS FOR WORKERS

German national Lukas Kissner (left) and British national Emir Buran (right) are among the few tourists on Boracay Island. Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

British national Emir Buran meanwhile has spent the last 2 weeks traveling around the Visayas, saying he is taking advantage of the discounts offered in top tourist spots.

The 32-year-old foreigner said he came from London, landed in Manila, and went around Cebu, Bohol, and Siquijor before coming to Boracay.

“At first, I was scared especially in Manila, because everyone was like wearing a mask but then I got used to it,” he told ABS-CBN News.

“I think the situation here is even much better than in Europe so I’m just trying to take advantage of the most that I could do in these beautiful tourist spots since there are not too many people,” he said.

All countries in Europe have a confirmed case of COVID-19, an acute respiratory disease first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. To date, it has infected at least 113,000, with 4,000 deaths. 

But while tourists like Kissner and Buran find a bright spot in the virus scare for their travels, the same cannot be said for local workers whose livelihoods are dependent on tourism.

For tricycle driver Freddy Jacinto, the decline in the number of tourists on the island means less food on the table.

“Grabe talaga ang epekto ng virus na iyan kasi halos wala na pasahero, eh kapag walang pasahero, nganga din ang mga anak ko sa bahay,” he said.

(The effect of the virus scare is really bad because we almost have no more passengers at all. If there are no passengers, there won’t be money to feed my children.)

Massage therapist Yolanda Bantang said the effect of the virus is “very bad” that work shifts in their spa have been reduced to two from the usual three since there are not enough customers to serve.

Before the virus scare, Bantang said she used to cater to around 10 customers during her shift, but now, she said “it’s luck” if she gets one customer for the day.

From the usual P1,500 charge for a Swedish massage, Bantang said the price has been reduced to P300 just to entice customers.

“Ngayon, maswerte na kung makapag-uwi ako ng P50 eh kasi madalas wala talaga kasi walang tao. Takot magsilabas dahil sa coronavirus na 'yan,” she said.

(Now, I’d be lucky if I could bring home P50 because usually there’s not much people. Everyone is afraid to go out because of that coronavirus.)

Malay Municipal chief tourism operations officer Felix Delos Santos Jr. Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

For the island's tourism industry to survive, the Malay Municipal Tourism Office said it is banking on discounted rates of services to encourage Filipinos to visit Boracay.

“We have agreed to give discounts to entice the people to visit Boracay and for them to see that it’s safe here,” chief tourism operations officer Delos Santos Jr. said.

The Boracay Water Sports Association and the Boracay Island Hopping Adventure Multi-Purpose Cooperative are among tour operators that have slashed their prices by as much as 40 percent.

Parasailing, for instance, which used to be priced at P2,500 for a 15-minute ride, now costs P1,500. Banana boat rides on the other hand are now priced at P2,000 from the usual P3,000.

“It’s sad that this is happening but we have to remain optimistic because it’s not just Boracay or the Philippines, it’s a global thing,” Delos Santos said.

As workers like Bantang and Jacinto work their way into surviving the tourism lull, travelers like Buran and Kissner, meanwhile, are off to see more of the Philippines.

Buran said he would leave Boracay on Thursday and would most likely find another tourist destination to visit in the Philippines, laughing off jitters that most people have about traveling during the global virus outbreak.

“At the end of the day, it’s sad that this virus is happening but in a way, you have to make a decision—and I decide to make the most out of it,” he said.