Philippine tourism

Cebu Pacific ‘cautiously optimistic’ for tourism, nears return to full capacity

Lance Spencer Yu

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Cebu Pacific ‘cautiously optimistic’ for tourism, nears return to full capacity

CEBU PACIFIC. The first of 32 A321neo aircraft ordered by Cebu Pacific takes off from Hamburg, Germany.

Cebu Pacific

Cebu Pacific sees tourism picking up as countries relax restrictions, but lingering manpower and infrastructure issues may impede a full revival

MANILA, Philippines – Cebu Pacific is expecting to restore “100% pre-COVID systemwide capacity” by March, but the low-cost carrier cautioned the tourism industry may take a few years to return to past levels.

“We’ve been cautiously optimistic over the last 24 months. We’re quite excited for 2023, given that all these markets have opened up,” said president and chief commercial officer Xander Lao in a media event on Wednesday, January 25.

Lao, however, cited two “reopening pains” that the tourism and travel industries faced: a lack of manpower and infrastructure. For the first issue, he pointed out that the workforce in other countries are shifting away from jobs with intensive physical labor, such as those in aircraft ground handling.

“That’s what’s happening in a lot of the markets we operate to. Jobs are getting more expensive. Service jobs are getting more expensive, so people are graduating to that from the normal ground handling,” Lao said in a chance interview with reporters.

Infrastructure was another stumbling block, such as in the cessation of Cebu Pacific flights to Batanes. Lao described the Batanes airport as “one of the more operationally challenging airports for the Philippines.”

“Until such time that infrastructure improves, I don’t think we’ll be coming back to Batanes. We don’t want to offer a service, and then a few days before, i-cacancel (it’ll be canceled) because of bad weather or what-have-you,” Lao said.

“Hopefully the infrastructure improves to allow us to come back. A lot of our customers are asking when we would return, but there has to be some infra improvements,” he added.

Candice Iyog, Cebu Pacific chief marketing and customer experience officer, said that Cebu Pacific had tried to fly to Batanes due to high requests, but had to eventually stop. 

“As a low-cost carrier, one of the fundamental aspects of doing this business is being able to have predictability and consistency,” Iyog said. “Never closing doors, just not in the immediate horizon.”

Gradual return

As of 2023, Cebu Pacific announced that it had resumed flying to 34 domestic and 25 international destinations. With the relaxation of travel requirements, the airline expected significant growth coming from its international network, according to Iyog. 

“We want to highlight: there are no travel requirements going into Bangkok and into Taiwan. There are no more tests required to travel to South Korea, Japan, and Australia. There are no more quarantine requirements as well going to Hong Kong, Macau, and to China,” she said.

However, both executives were careful to exercise “cautious optimism” in its assessment of the tourism and travel industry. Although they expected tourism to surge in 2023 compared to previous years, they do not see the industry returning to its pre-pandemic levels just yet.

“We’re quite bullish in the sense that tourism is quite an important segment of the Philippine economy, and we think that that’s going to come back. Are we going to come back to pre-COVID levels this year? Probably not. It might take us a couple of years,” Lao said.

“One of the things that we did right as part of this cautious optimism is also bringing back the routes or flights to destination when all other things line up,” Iyog said. “[We’re] making sure to bring it back when the market is also ready to come back.”

Chinese tourist market

Both executives pointed out the importance of China’s reopening, which had long been among the top tourist markets of the Philippines. In 2022, arrivals from China had dropped to a low of 39,627, after the Chinese government implemented strict travel restrictions and sweeping lockdowns.

But that is all set to change in 2023 as China bade farewell to its zero-COVID policy and once again reopened its borders.

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But even with the easing of restrictions, Lao believed that it would take a while for the Chinese tourist market to return to its pre-pandemic levels, which had contributed as much as 1,743,309 arrivals in 2019.

“One of the things we were discussing internally was, when China does reopen, can you come back quickly to 100%? To be honest, practically speaking, that would be quite difficult because in terms of ground handling resources, are they ready? In terms of local governments in China themselves, are they ready? In terms of our own visa issuances, are they ready?” Lao said.

“I think it will take awhile for the airlines to come back, but having said that, we’re quite bullish on the tourism prospects this year,” he added. –

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Lance Spencer Yu

Lance Spencer Yu is a multimedia reporter who covers the transportation, tourism, infrastructure, finance, agriculture, and corporate sectors, as well as macroeconomic issues.