Philippine Domestic Tourism Recovery Through the Implementation of the Ridge and Reef Travel Corridor and the NCR Plus Travel Bubble

Summary

Domestic tourism recovery using the travel bubble strategy is on the post-lockdown agenda of the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Domestic tourism is the focus in the wake of a collapsed international travel market (Abdullah, 2020; Chan 2020; Helble, 2020).  As an initiative to spur domestic travel, the Ridge and Reef Travel Corridor and the NCR Plus Travel Bubble were implemented in relation to the reopening of domestic tourism. Although the implementation of the domestic travel bubble strategy is still in the early stages, its potential to revive the tourism industry is promising. There are however challenges that need to be solved like uniformity of guidelines, policies, travel requirements and mobile apps or websites used for registration and monitoring of tourists across the bubbles. Further, there are no available data that would link the economic impact of the domestic travel bubble strategy to the GDP of the country.

Across ASEAN, the creation and implementation of the domestic travel bubble is from the national government unlike in the Philippines where the strategy originated from LGUs and IATF. Thailand’s “We Travel Together,” Malaysia’s “Green Travel Bubble,” Vietnam’s “Vietnamese People Travel in Vietnam,” and Indonesia’s “3B Travel Bubble” were all created by their respective tourism ministries as part of a national strategy to revive domestic tourism amidst the Covid19 pandemic. These domestic travel bubble programs were implemented together with financial support from the national government that involved direct subsidies to both local tourists and tourism industry players. Further, major industry players such as airlines, hotels, resorts, and shopping centers have provided support to the government program by providing discounts to local travelers. With these interventions both coming from the national government and various industry players, domestic tourism has filled the vacuum that has been created by the absence of international tourists. Though the figures are not enough to satisfy the full recovery of the tourism industry, experts have pointed out that domestic tourism bubbles can keep the industry going while waiting for the reopening of international borders.

The findings of this paper are abridged to come up with recommended tourism policy strategies based on the best practices in the ASEAN region. For the Philippines to adopt domestic tourism recovery through the implementation of the travel bubble strategy, the national government through the Department of Tourism (DOT) must immediately come up with a national domestic tourism recovery plan that will link various LGUs through travel corridors. Further, DOT has to ensure that guidelines, travel requirements, and mobile or website apps are uniform across bubbles. DOT has to provide direct subsidies to local travelers and tourism enterprises similar to the program undertaken in Thailand and Vietnam to ensure the success of the domestic travel bubble strategy. Lastly, DOT has to involve all players in the tourism industry to enable and empower them to recover amidst the pandemic. 

Background of the Study 

In June 2020, Philippine Statistics Authority reported that the share of tourism to GDP in 2019 is 12.7% (PSA, 2020).   This means that in the same year, the country’s tourism revenue has reached $9.31 billion which is 20.81% higher as compared to the $7.71 billion receipts in 2018 (Rocamora, 2020).  To put into perspective, the tourism industry employed 5.71 million people or 14 in every 100 employed in the country in 2019 (Angara, 2020).

However, in 2020 the Philippine tourism industry saw a 73% drop in foreign visitor arrivals in the first seven months from the same period in 2019 (Rocamora, 2020).  The Department of Tourism reported that about 1.3 million visitors have been recorded from January to June 2020 from the almost 48 million arrivals of the same time last year (Rocamora, 2020). The decline in foreign tourist arrival is due to the various travel restrictions to foreign nationals as the country tried to contain COVID-19.

With virtually no foreign tourist arrival, the Department of Tourism shifted its gear towards domestic travel. In an article published by the Philippine News Agency, Tourism Undersecretary Benito Bengzon said: “We have a very huge domestic tourism base. Last year, there were about 109 million domestic trips. And we’re very confident that as we open up local destinations, it will be the local tourists who will be creating or stimulating the demand (Rocamora, 2020).” Hence, the Department of Tourism has been pushing for domestic travel bubbles to augment the lack of foreign arrivals in the Philippines.  According to an ADB blog, the creation of a travel bubble will help the tourism industry to recover from the dearth brought about by the pandemic (Helble, 2020).  Helbe noted that countries would fare better in the promotion of domestic tourism like the Philippines which invested $8.5 million in domestic tourism campaigns in early 2020.  ADB also noted that domestic travel can potentially replace the lack of foreign visitors but for countries that are more dependent on the tourism industry, the impact of domestic tourism may not be very significant (Helble, 2020).

With the threat of COVID-19 still around more than a year since it has rocked the Philippines, many Local Government Units (LGU) and the Department of Tourism (DOT) are now setting up travel bubbles as a key strategy to revive the economy (Burgos, 2021).  As Secretary Bernadette Puyat of the Department of Tourism has said, the Philippine tourism industry will be anchored on domestic tourism as long as restrictions on international travel are still imposed. 

Hence, this paper aims to find out how the Ridge and Reef Travel Corridor and the NCR Plus Travel Bubble are implemented in relation to the reopening of domestic tourism through the travel bubble strategy.  Further, this paper hopes to come up with a policy recommendation based on the best practices of some ASEAN countries in implementing their respective domestic tourism travel bubble strategies. To do these, qualitative research is used.

Review of Related Literature

According to Locker (2020), in a travel bubble, also called corona corridors or travel bridges, a set of countries agree to open their borders to each other but keep their borders closed to all other countries so people can move freely within the bubble but cannot enter from the outside.  Travel bubbles allow two countries to expand their zones to include more people who are considered safe.  The best time to form a travel bubble is when two countries have no more cases of COVID-19.

In the Philippine setting, the Department of Tourism through Undersecretary Benito Bengzon, Jr. in an interview by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, defined domestic travel bubbles or travel corridors as exclusive agreements between or among LGUs that have relatively low COVID19 cases allowing travel by easing restrictions to boost domestic tourism (Burgos, 2021). The country adopted the concept of domestic travel bubble on October 20, 2020 with the Ridge and Reef Travel Corridor and on March 22, 2021 with the NCR Plus travel bubble.

The Philippines has adopted the concept of domestic travel bubble on October 20, 2020 with the Ridge and Reef Travel Corridor which is a corridor plan between Baguio City and the provinces of La Union, Pangasinan, Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte commonly referred to as BLUPISIN (Rocamora, 2020). Within the BLUPISIN travel corridor, people can move freely for leisure purposes provided they have a negative RT PCR result.

The Ridge to Reef Travel Corridor has 3 phases as follows: Phase 1 is the re-opening of the intra-regional travel corridor between Baguio City and Region 1 or the Ilocos Region; Phase 2 is the expanded travel corridor to include other provinces in Luzon and Phase 3 is the subnational corridor wherein LGUs under General Community Quarantine (GCQ) can now visit Baguio and the Ilocos Region. A maximum of 50 visitors per day is allowed under the program to ensure effective crowd control and the strict implementation of the health and safety protocols that begin at the borders of the province in the municipalities of Tagudin and Sinait, where the triage testing centers are located. Upon arrival at the borders, tourists must present the following: negative result for RT-PCR test taken within 48 hours before travel; digital or printed SafePass QR Code; confirmed itinerary from a DOT accredited tour and travel agency; confirmed booking from a DOT accredited accommodation establishment; confirmed booking from a DOT accredited tourist transport if not using a private vehicle; and government-issued ID.  Upon arrival, the guests are required to take an antigen test at the Ilocos Sur Tourist Triage and Assistance Center, which shall be valid for a three-day itinerary. Tourists who intend to stay more than three days must take another antigen test on their fourth day, which is valid for another three-day stay (Malaya, 2020).

Moreover, the Local Government of Baguio City has introduced the Baguio Visitor Information and Travel Assistant (VIS.I.T.A.) which is an online registration system for Baguio tourists and travelers. The Baguio VIS.I.T.A. was designed as a digital system that regulates entry and monitors mobility of visitors through a ticketing system using a QR-coded Tourist Pass (QTP) while concurrently implementing the city’s health and safety protocols from the mandated triad check-points to digital check-ins for contact tracing (Baguio Tourism Office, n.d.).

On March 22, 2021, Resolution 104 was adopted by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) placing the National Capital Region (NCR) and its surrounding provinces under one bubble called NCR Plus travel bubble. NCR Plus is composed of Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal. In the NCR Plus travel bubble, leisure travel is allowed within and between the National Capital Region, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal but only for a limited number of people as mass gatherings are prohibited. However, minors, persons aged 65 and above, and those with health risks are required to remain in their homes except when buying essential goods or reporting for work. Non-essential travel in and out of the NCR Plus bubble is not allowed (Romero, 2021).

Within the NCR Plus travel bubble, only hotels with “Certificate of Authority to Operate as Staycation” from DOT are allowed to operate for leisure purposes; outdoor dining or al fresco are allowed in restaurants with maximum of 50% of venue capacity; public parks and other open air tourist attractions remain open; traditional cinemas, game arcades, libraries, museums, and cultural centers are closed; and places of worship are open subject to 30% capacity or as may be regulated by their respective LGUs (Jalea, 2021).

On May 9, 2021, IATF allowed point-to-point travel for residents from NCR Plus travel bubble to areas under Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) as part of initial measures to spur tourism activities in the countryside. The Department of Tourism classified point-to-point travel as a form of travel between two areas with no stopovers or changes in routes (Ong, 2021)

In Thailand, the Thai government approved a $718 million budget to promote domestic travel bubble which is available to Thai citizens aged 20 and up. The program called “We Travel Together” comes in three packages (Parpart, 2020).  The first package is Hotel Room Discount which provides 40% discount on all participating hotels with a limit of 3,000 Baht worth of discounts per night for no more than five nights or 15,000 Baht per person. This also comes with an allowance of 600 Baht per night for no more than five nights or 3,000 Baht per person.  To avail this, booking must be made outside one’s home province.  The second package is Airfare, Inter-Provincial Bus Fare and Car Rental Discount which provides 40% discount on domestic plane tickets, inter-provincial bus fare and car rental services with a limit of 1,000 Baht per person was included in the program. The government has also negotiated with participating low-cost airlines to set a fixed domestic roundtrip ticket to not more than 2,500.00 Baht per person.  And the third package is Tour Package for Medical Staff which included a complimentary three days and two nights travel package with 2,000 Baht allowance per person for all 1.2 million medical staff such as village health volunteers and local hospital officials. Booking is made through participating travel agents and travel must be outside one’s home province. To avail the program, Thai citizens need to use Krung Thai’s mobile banking application to receive the electronic coupons which they can use to pay to partner merchants (Somanas, 2020). 

In Malaysia, the domestic tourism recovery through travel bubble strategy is implemented using the “Green Travel Bubble” program (Chau, 2020). In the bubble, people are allowed to travel between districts in a state categorized as a green zone without obtaining permission from the police. The same policy is applied to people who wish to travel from a green zone state to another green zone state. However, people who are planning to travel from a green zone state to another green zone state but will have to pass through a red zone state shall need permission from police. Further, if a person is traveling from a green zone district or state, to another green zone district within a red zone state is allowed but one must apply for permission from the police for this purpose. The use of MySejahtera mobile application is required to determine if from which zone a traveler comes from (Chan, 2020).   

In Vietnam, the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT) has developed a domestic tourism recovery strategy through the domestic travel bubble with the theme dubbed as “Connection, Action and Development”. The travel bubble program however is called “Vietnamese People Travel in Vietnam” (Ha, 2020). The two-fold tasks of the program are strengthening linkages within the industry to develop travel bubble products; and building institutions, reviewing proposals to amend legal documents on tourism to suit the reality and development requirements in the new normal. Also with the tourism recovery program, Vietnam’s tourism industry is aiming to reposition itself in the international tourism market through the travel bubble. Further, the Vietnam tourism recovery program is targeting to improve the quality of tourists, develop suitable products for the market; continue to effectively implement the tourism stimulation programs, accelerate digital transformation, and develop a high-quality tourism workforce in order to prepare the country for recovery and development processes in the years to come (Nhan Dhan Online, 2020). As a result of the program, Vietnam Plus reported on April 19, 2021 that domestic tours are booked up to 60% for the four-day National Reunification Day (April 30) and International Labour Day (May 1) holidays. Tourists are booking mostly short-distance trips and brief stays from Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi to SaPa, Ha Long, Phu Quoc, Da Nang, Da Lat, and Con Dao Island. 

In Indonesia, the Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy in an interview with TTG Asia has said that the shift to focusing on boosting the domestic travel bubble between Bali and provinces with few Covid19 cases is by pursuing quality domestic tourists. The Secretary said that Indonesia has a vast collection of natural attractions which can woo higher quality travelers as part of efforts to rebuild the domestic tourism sector amid the pandemic. It is noted that higher quality tourists would be more attracted to low-risk nature-based tourism in super priority destinations like Bali, Lake Toba in North Sumatra, and Labuan Bajo in East Nusa Tenggara as compared to cosmopolitan destinations like Jakarta or Surubaya. As part of Indonesia’s new tourism push, the government earmarked US$1.6 million in financial assistance to six tourism and creative economy sub-sectors which includes an incentive of up to $14,000 for each hotel and homestay in tourism villages, particularly in super priority destinations (Ulung, 2020). Bali is the first destination in Indonesia that re-opened its borders to domestic tourists on July 31, 2020 under strict protocols that include visitors showing proof they tested negative for Covid19, using the Love Bali mobile app or website for registration and monitoring and strict health protocols by observing social distancing, temperature-checking and mask wearing. Further, tourism establishments in Bali are only allowed to operate below full capacity and hotel workers need to put on additional protective equipment such as hand gloves and mask (Yulisman, 2020).

 Analytical Framework

This research paper used comparative case study model in analyzing the implementation of domestic tourism recovery using the travel bubble strategy in the Philippines vis-à-vis best practices of some countries in the ASEAN region particularly Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Specifically, this paper compared the “Ridge and Reef Travel Corridor” and the “NCR Plus Travel Bubble” against the “We Travel Together” travel bubble strategy of Thailand, “Green Travel Bubble” of Malaysia, “Vietnamese People Travel in Vietnam” of Vietnam and Indonesia’s “3B (Bali, Batam, Bintan) Travel Bubble” in order to draw a conclusion about topic. To further strengthen the framework, the researcher identified and analyzed the similarities and differences between the Philippine experience and experiences of the five ASEAN countries in their domestic tourism recovery strategy using the concept of domestic travel bubble. Further, as this research paper utilized qualitative research method, the study is characterized by observation without manipulation of data gathered. Further, data are collected using available resources online from April 2020 to June 8, 2021.

Analysis of Findings

The Ridge and Reef Travel Corridor is the Philippines’ bid to spur domestic tourism recovery through the collaboration of the Department of Tourism, various LGUs in Region 1, and the private sector. It was established following strict implementation of health and safety protocols in tourism establishments and adopting stricter border measures.  To monitor the movement of tourists, Baguio City has implemented an online visitor information registration portal (https://visita.baguio.gov.ph/) where all travelers are required to have a QR code prior to entry.  Further, the Department of Tourism has implemented the TaraNa! (https://region1.tarana.ph/) online registration system for Region 1 where tourists are required to secure a travel pass to enter the region. In both online platforms, travelers need to input personal and pertinent travel details in order to obtain a downloadable QR code which will be presented at check point areas or triage areas before one is allowed entry. Together with either a printed or electronic copy of the QR code, one must also present a valid ID and a negative Covid19 result.  At the triage areas, anti-gen testing is also available but the travelers have to shoulder the cost. In addition to the basic requirements, other LGUs may also require booking confirmation from a DOT accredited hotel with a certificate to operate as a tourist accommodation facility or a travel itinerary from a DOT accredited travel agency or tour operator.  On the other hand, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) have established an online registration system called the S-PaSS (https://s-pass.ph/) to make travelling safe, swift and smart. When using the system, a traveler can download a Travel Coordination Permit (TCP) which is used when travelling from one LGU to another.

The NCR Plus Travel Bubble was created by IATF on March 22, 2021 to maintain economic and tourism activities in the national capital region while restricting travel in and outside the bubble. Within the bubble, people in Metro Manila, Rizal, Bulacan, Cavite, and Laguna can do everything they used to do under the normal GCQ classification including staycations within the NCR Plus travel bubble except: holding any gathering including religious activities, weddings, baptisms and funeral services which is limited to 10 persons;  indoor dining, visiting indoor tourist attractions like cinemas, arcades, museums, libraries and cultural sites, outdoor exercise for 18 years old and below and 65 years old and up; and going to gym, spa and internet café.  Areas within the NCR Plus travel bubble will not be subject to the strictest form of community quarantine but remain under general community quarantine. Hence, there are no mobility restrictions inside the bubble. The NCR Plus travel bubble was designed to contain the spread of Covid19 and at the same time allowing economic activities to continue within the national capital region and surrounding provinces.  

Both the Ridge and Reef Travel Corridor and the NCR Plus Travel Bubble are strategies to stimulate economic recovery but are not coming from one and the same government authority or a centralized government agency the former being an initiative of the Department of Tourism, Local Government of Baguio City and various LGUs in Region 1 while the latter is the making of the IATF.  Hence, the two initiatives are rather substantially different than similar to each other in terms of travel requirements and protocols. For example, with the Ridge and Reef Travel Corridor’s Phase 1, those who will enter Baguio need to register online and secure a QR code and must be tested negative for Covid19 at triage centers prior to being admitted to the city. In the NCR Plus travel bubble, no such online registration is done and no QR code is required.

Further, the Ridge and Reef comes in three phases while in the NCR Plus, there are no such phases of the initiative.   In addition, even within the Ridge and Reef travel corridor, various LGUs have their own rules per locality and no centralized policy within the bubble is adopted. For example, the Ridge and Reef travel bubble has no uniform online registration system for travellers.  Baguio City has its own VIS.I.T.A. website while Region 1 has TaraNa website developed not by the LGUs but by the Tourism Promotions Board and the Department of Tourism. Also, within the Ridge and Reef travel corridor, Baguio City requires a negative antigen test result to travellers prior to entry while the same is not required in other LGUs within the bubble. On the other hand, within the NCR Plus travel bubble, travellers from Metro Manila do not need any online registration, prior hotel booking and negative antigen test result when they travel within the bubble. Only restrictions related to General Community Quarantine protocols are imposed and adopted.

Vietnam, being the first ASEAN country to adopt a domestic travel bubble strategy has implemented a centralized approach. The national government has mandated all its local governments to come up with tourism promotional programs to encourage its citizens to travel during the pandemic.  Vietravel reported that around 60% percent of its vacation packages which include flights, car rentals, and hotels have been bought.  Further, in SaPa town, 80% of all accommodation and lodging facilities are booked during the Reunification Day and Labor Day holidays. Furthermore, many hotels in other destinations have reported increased occupancy rate during the pandemic (Vietnam Plus, 2021).  In relation to the implementation of the domestic travel bubble strategy, the government of Malaysia has given the green light for most types of domestic travel holidays to include same day vacations, holidays with accommodation booking or tickets purchased in advance and vacation packages and tours booked through registered travel companies. Further, the following types of domestic tourism activities are approved by the government within the travel bubble: MICE, travel fairs, travel marts, tourism and cultural carnivals, adventure and sports tourism, activities and tourist attractions, special interest tourism activities like golfing, cycling, yachting, bird watching and white-water rafting among others (Kessler, 2020). Tourism activities in Malaysia are allowed in areas under the conditional and recovery movement control order phases. Among the activities allowed include public and tourist attractions such as zoos, cultural heritage sites, museums, farms, aquariums, edutainment centers, recreational parks, theme parks, extreme and nature park outlets (Chin, 2021).

Indonesia has introduced the 3B Travel Bubble referring to a tripartite travel bubble among Bali, Batam and Bintan. In this bubble, all tourism workers are given priority slots in the vaccination program and hotels are given priority funding assistance by the government. Apart from being a domestic travel bubble, the 3B travel bubble is also being positioned as Indonesia’s travel corridor with Singapore, China, Australia, South Korea and other countries. On the other hand, Thailand has adopted the Phuket Sandbox Model which allows activities and tours within Phuket and must be operated by companies certified by the Safety and Health Administration (SHA).  While in Phuket, all visitors must behave with the DMHTT standards – distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, testing and Thailand Plus. All guests are required to undergo RT PCR test on day 5 and if the result is positive, they will be transferred immediately to a hospital.  If the result is negative, they can visit other islands around Phuket for a day trip (Royal Vacation, n.d.). 

The participation of various stakeholders played an important factor in the planning, implementation and evaluation processes of the domestic travel bubble strategy. Though the actors were different from country to country, it was evident that the roles of the national and local governments, tourism enterprises, people’s organizations, tourism organizations, local tourists, voluntary sector organizations, educational institutions and media have affected the re-opening strategy of domestic tourism. Further, the application and use of online and mobile technology in the registration, tracing and monitoring of tourist activities have contributed to ease and the reach of the program.   On the other, the policy making process of travel bubble initiatives were not legislative in nature.  Policies originated from the local governments and sub-national agencies that are directly dealing with specific territorial jurisdiction.  Guidelines formulated and implemented are likewise adoptive to particular community quarantine classification hence the constant changes and perceived vagueness of travel guidelines, policies and travel requirements.  

Conclusion and Recommendations

The Philippine experience of economic recovery through domestic travel bubble strategy is different in most aspects as compared to other ASEAN countries in the implementation of their domestic travel bubble initiatives.  Travel bubble and domestic tourism strategies in the Philippines are decisions made by the LGUs.  There are no single and uniform strategies, policies, and requirements of travel coming from the national government or the Department of Tourism. The Ridge and Reef travel bubble is an initiative of LGU Baguio City and the provinces in Region 1 while the NCR Plus Travel Bubble was created by the IATF and the local chief executives within the bubble.  In both programs, the role of the Department of Tourism was limited to ensuring that tourism establishments comply with the policies set by the LGUs and IATF by issuing policy guidelines to this effect.  In fact, DOT has no national plan on domestic tourism bubble – everything was left to the LGUs. In Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, their domestic travel bubble programs originated from the central government and there are uniform guidelines and policies across areas where such travel bubbles exist.  Their respective national governments provided direct support to local tourists and tourism enterprises in the promotion of domestic tourism.  Vietnam and Thailand say for instance have pioneering strategies in their travel bubble programs which can be adapted by the Philippines in designing its travel bubble strategies.

For the Philippines to successfully use the domestic travel bubble strategy, the Department of Tourism must spearhead the initiative and must come-up with a national plan for this purpose incorporating the best practices of ASEAN countries.  First, DOT has to ensure uniformity of guidelines, travel requirements, and the use of a single mobile app for all leisure travel nationwide. Second, DOT must provide direct subsidy to travelers and not to limit assistance to the first-come-first-served antigen test.  DOT has to introduce a sustainable travel program that would entice locals to travel by providing airline and hotel subsidy for all. Third, DOT has to provide direct assistance to tourism enterprises who are operating under the leisure category. This assistance may range from capital and/or labor subsidies. Fourth, DOT has to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the planning and implementation of the travel bubble strategy. DOT has to tap not only the major industry players but to consider as well the local tour guides, community and people’s organizations and all those in the grassroots to shape the future of the tourism industry. And Lastly, DOT has to come up immediately with a national plan on how to revive the industry through the domestic travel bubble strategy. DOT has to spearhead the initiative of linking LGUs through travel corridors.  In this way, there will be uniform guidelines, policies and travel requirements across the country.

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