Ilocos Norte tourist arrivals pick up over ‘Undas’ break

Tourist arrivals in Ilocos Norte picked up over the long "Undas" weekend, raising local officials' hopes that the province could finally start recovering from pandemic-induced losses.

Xavier Ruiz, officer-in-charge of Ilocos Norte tourism, said on Tuesday, November 2, that the province recorded its "biggest daily arrival" during the pandemic on October 30, with 425 leisure travelers coming in.

Over the past four days, he added, the tourist count reached 796. This, Ruiz said, accounted for at least 51% of the 1,544 total arrivals since the province reopened its famed tourist sites on September 24.

“So far, it has been our busiest long weekend ever,” said Ruiz.

It's still a far cry from pre-pandemic levels, however. In 2019, the provincial tourism office recovered 461,249 visitors to the province over the months of October and November -- a 7,687-tourist daily average over two months.

The province first welcomed back leisure travelers amid the pandemic in October 2020 through a “travel bubble” set-up involving the the cities and provinces within the Ilocos region and Baguio City. Since then, at least 5,091 tourists have visited the province, according to Ruiz.

Although the current flow of visitors is a miniscule slice of pre-pandemic figures, officials and industry workers see it as a herald of recovery in a sector that was among the hardest hit.

The tourism industry is a critical driver of economic growth in the province. Ilocos Norte was hosting  about 3.8 million tourists annually before the pandemic, data from the local tourism office showed.

The prolonged shutdown during the pandemic displaced at least 3,500 tourism workers, with over P17 billion losses in potential income, local tourism data showed.

Majority of the leisure travelers during the long weekend went to stay in Pagudpud town, whose beaches have been hailed as among the best in the world, said Ruiz.

Tourist accommodation facilities in the province are allowed to operate at 50% capacity for now, said Ruiz.

Jesa Mae Garaña, an employee of Evangeline's Resort in Pagudpud, was delighted on October 31, Sunday, that their guest count during the long weekend had been the highest since the province reopened to tourists.

Following the 50% limit on operations, Garaña said in Ilokano that the resort had been "fully-booked" in the past three days and for multiple days this November. She hoped that the situation would continue to allow them to recover lost income, especially with the coming of the tourism peak season in the province in the next two months.

Many of their recent guests were from areas covered by the NCR Plus Bubble who had booked last April, but had to cancel or reschedule because of travel restrictions, Garaña said.

Garaña said the resort where she worked did not shut down amid the pandemic. But she was forced to temporarily stop working for at least eight months in 2020 as low arrivals pushed the resort to scale down services.

She returned last December, and together with her five other co-employees at the resort, decided to get vaccinated. Garaña admitted that her fear of contracting the virus lingers up to this day. 

According to Ruiz, there is no plan yet to drop the mandatory COVID-19 testing requirement for travelers until the province achieves herd immunity against the virus. 

“This is to further ensure the safety and protection not only of our tourists but [of] the entire community as well,” he said.

Citing local guidelines, Ruiz said tourists are given the option to present negative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction test results taken within 72 hours before their travel, or a negative rapid antigen test result taken within 24 hours or upon arrival at the borders.

In September, Ilocos Norte was among the top tourist destinations in the country which received a “safe travel” stamp from the World Tourism Council and the Department of Tourism for upholding safe travel protocols.

On Monday, the provincial government also asked qualified travelers to take advantage of the free swab test program of the Department of Tourism at the Philippine Children’s Medical Center when they plan to visit Ilocos Norte.

Local officials are expecting tourists to pour in, especially that community quarantine restrictions had been eased to modified general community quarantine  (MGCQ) with the slowdown of the spread of COVID-19 cases in the province.

As of November 1, the province has 181 active COVID-19 cases, with the lowest average daily attack rate in Ilocos region at 2.79 per 100,000 population. – Rappler.com

John Michael Mugas is a Luzon-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship.