Region 12 tourism copes with the pandemic


Tourism is one of the industries that have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The travel restrictions, closing of borders, and the decline in travel demands led some tourism-related establishments to close their businesses, while others opted to modify their operations in order to survive. According to the World Tourism Organization, around 100 to 200 million tourism jobs are at risk because of the unintended effects of the pandemic.

In SOCCSKSARGEN (SOX), the tourism sector has experienced the same scenario. The region followed the policies and health protocol imposed by the national government to help lessen the spread of the virus. When the region was shifted from General Community Quarantine (GCQ) to Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ), Local Government Units (LGUs) lifted some restrictions to help recover the local economy. 

At that time, the Department of Tourism (DOT) 12 OIC Regional Director Armin Hautea started coordinating with industry stakeholders and LGUs for the reopening of local tourist destinations and facilities after the region was classified as among the low-risk areas for COVID-19. Under MGCQ, the accommodation and tourism-related facilities are already allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity, with the observance of proper safety standards. But things changed when the region started to increase its COVID-19 cases. 

“Currently, the region is experiencing a surge in positive cases. Our LGUs are pooling efforts and resources to stop the spread of the virus. Their capacity in terms of contact tracing, medical and isolation facilities, lab test, and work force are all in critical condition. Hence, it is becoming insensitive of the DOT to put the opening of tourism on the top agenda of the local government. Despite the recognition of our LGUs regarding the importance of tourism in the local economy, I believe they are just doing the right things in balancing the economy and safety,” Hautea said. 

DOT 12 remains committed to serve the tourism stakeholders of the region. They have conducted various programs and activities such as supervising, monitoring, and issuing Certificates of Authority to Operate (CAO) for tourism-related establishments; conducting online webinars; coordination support provided to LGUs in their efforts of bringing home LSIs/ROFs/OFWs; and provided assistance to the industry’s displaced workers through coordination with other agencies’ programs (like DOLE & DSWD). 

“DOT formulated its Tourism Recovery Framework Plan which spells the agency’s response to the current pandemic. In the regional office, we faced tough decisions that should put the staff in a safe situation while not compromising our basic services. DOT XII has adopted a combination of Work-from-Home (WFH) and reporting in our physical office with strict implementation of the basic health protocol,” Hautea said. 

“All staff are required to submit weekly targets and accomplishments to monitor activities of staff in WFH scheme. There are regular virtual meetings conducted and daily reporting of tasks and health conditions. Staff who undertakes physical reporting is provided with shuttle service to ensure safety and limit (human) exposures.” 

Tourism offices from various provinces, cities, and municipalities continue to provide necessary assistance to their tourism stakeholders. They managed to implement some of their tourism projects like conducting online seminars and training and launched virtual tours to engage with the tourists. 

“Nothing can stop us from promoting the best that we can offer for our visitors. We want them to be at home in the province, even in the virtual environment. We maximize social media platforms to show our beautiful destinations with stories worthy to share,” Argie Asaria said, the Provincial Tourism Operations Officer of South Cotabato. 

“We are already considering effective collaboration mechanisms not only with the LGUs but hopefully with the private sector and civil society groups. The health and well-being of our families and community is our top priority.” 

Tourism organizations in the region also initiated their programs to help their members in this trying time. 

“The Regional Tourism Council has initiated consultations to listen and to suggest to the DOT where we can be supported. There were web training provided by DOT 12. This included increasing health protocols in tourism destinations, moving businesses online, etc.,” Michelle Solon said, the president of the Regional Tourism Council. 

“However, the pandemic does not give us any regularity in business. There is no certainty for your operation. The forecast states that this can continue even into 2021. The key to adapt in this scenario is to first ACCEPT the current situation we are all in. We must accept that we cannot control tomorrow, we can only be resilient.  The second measure is to PREPARE. We should learn as much as we could on how to operate in this new normal. We should start applying new ways of doing business – cashless, internet-based, with health protocols in workplaces. Many hotel properties have begun applying these new ways of operating.” 

Various tourism-related services, like the habal-habal drivers and event organizers, are trying to cope with this pandemic. They find ways to help sustain their daily needs. 

“Our LGU, the local tourism office, and the organization help us cope with this pandemic through conducting regular meetings, giving relief assistance and implementing the minimum health standards,” Jorie Untang Sabal said, the president of the Tourist Drivers and Local Guides of Lake Sebu. 

“Since there are no tourists yet visiting our place, we go back to our usual job as habal-habal drivers because it is the mode of transportation in Lake Sebu. We also look for other means to earn an income. In my case, I sell fish and vegetables in our local market. 

“Our industry is greatly affected in this pandemic. Although there are still clients who pursue all their events through small gatherings, most of our bookings were postponed and canceled. During this time, we only cater to intimate events and gatherings, like around 10 to 50 guests. We also strictly follow and observe the health and safety protocols set by our government. In short, we simplify the program flow of the event.” Lee Ann Omega said, the president of Gensan's League of Event Organizers

“In this life, change is constant. In a blink of an eye, everything may change. Before this pandemic, I have so many good plans and things to do. But since we are not in control of the situation some plans never happen and some need to be changed. But it doesn't mean I fail, I just need to be flexible,” she shared. 

“I still believe that travel is innate to humans. The tourism sector should regain the confidence of the traveling community to travel again. Safety First Tourism is our priority now. Accreditation has long been advocated by DOT. The tourism stakeholders should follow the accreditation process, especially to our LGUs, to ensure that the local destinations they offer have quality facilities and follow basic health protocol.” Hautea said.

“While we are not allowed yet to travel, let us take this as an opportune time to prepare our place. I am confident that with the efforts undertaken by our government, this pandemic will soon pass. Let us keep the faith, do our part, and together, we heal as one.” 

photos credit to DOT 12 and respective interviewees