MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine tourism industry still has a long way to go before hitting pre-pandemic levels – but the return of Chinese visitors in the hundreds of thousands may just help us get there faster.
Countries all over the world are already welcoming Chinese visitors back with open arms. Hotels in Singapore have prepared packages for Chinese visitors who will be there to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Meanwhile, a Japanese tour bus firm has similarly readied the revival of its Chinese-language tour.
The Philippines has big plans, too. The Department of Tourism (DOT) warmed up to the Chinese market during the three-day state visit of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to China. The DOT and its counterpart China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism signed an implementation program on tourism cooperation between China and the Philippines. The deal promotes “bilateral tourism cooperation” between the two countries in an effort to revive an industry waylaid by the pandemic.
Even before the deal, Philippine tourism was already picking up. In a press release on January 2, the DOT said that it logged 2.65 million international visitor arrivals in 2022, well above the department’s target. That, of course, also meant a boost in tourism revenue. That year, travelers brought in P208.96 billion – a more than 2,000% jump from the same period in 2021.
But remember, the pandemic was still very much ravaging the world in 2021, so using figures in that year as a benchmark may paint a deceptively rosy picture. See in this line graph just how far we’ve fallen from our pre-pandemic tourism levels.
To be clear, it was not just Philippine tourism that took a beating during the pandemic. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism suffered its worst crisis in history at the peak of COVID-19 in 2020, with international arrivals dropping by 74%. Since then, global tourism has speedily recovered up to 65% of its pre-pandemic levels.
However, the number of arrivals in Asia and the Pacific has lagged, according to UNWTO. This is where the crucial role of China comes in. China, among the biggest tourist markets for countries in the region, kept its borders mostly shuttered.
But that was all set to change when in late 2022, China made a surprise U-turn on its strict zero-COVID policy. Already, Asian countries are preparing for an influx of Chinese tourists. Among them is the Philippines, which has consistently counted China among its top 3 tourist markets. (READ: Asia’s tourist hotspots prepare for boom as China relaxes COVID-19 rules)
Before understanding why international arrivals from China are so integral to our tourism industry, we first need to take a deeper look at the people who came to the country in 2022.
Philippine tourism in 2022
Since the Philippines reopened its borders to travelers on February 15, 2022, it welcomed visitors from nearly every country. Here’s a map visualizing all Philippine-bound international arrivals in 2022, with data coming from the DOT’s monitoring of arrivals from February to December 2022.
In the map below, international arrivals are grouped by nationality, with their respective origin region shaded to represent the number of visitors coming from their area. Hover over the map to see specific numbers.
Returning overseas Filipinos comprised the majority of international arrivals in 2022, with 628,445 making the journey home. The rest of the 2.02 million arrivals consisted of foreign tourists, with American and South Korean visitors accounting for almost half of all tourist arrivals.
Here’s the breakdown of the country’s top 10 tourist markets:
- United States – 505,089
- South Korea – 428,014
- Australia – 137,974
- Canada – 121,413
- United Kingdom – 101,034
- Japan – 99,557
- Singapore – 53,448
- India – 51,542
- Malaysia – 46,805
- China – 39,627
Comparing the top 10 tourist markets in 2022 to pre-pandemic years, what immediately sticks out is the massive drop in international arrivals from China. China, along with the US and South Korea, has traditionally been among the top three foreign tourist markets in the Philippines.
And while tourists from the US and South Korea have already started trickling back into the country, the number of international arrivals from China has been limited, dropping to 10th place.
So what happened to Chinese tourists?
Take a look at how the country's top tourist markets have changed from 2010 to 2022, and keep an eye on how international arrivals from China have steadily grown – only to crash following the pandemic.
Recovery has been slow in large part due to President Xi Jinping's strict zero-COVID policy, which has restricted the movement of people and production in factories. For instance, in the first half of 2022, China began hard lockdowns in Shanghai.
Bankers and traders in the bustling city's financial districts slept in offices and lived off instant noodles to keep the country's financial markets turning. Snap lockdowns of buildings, routine mass PCR testing, and mandatory quarantines kept Chinese citizens on their toes for most of the year.
This extended to travel restrictions outside the country as well. China required returning travelers to have seven days of centralized quarantine along with three days of self-isolation. Travelers also had to go through a combination of PCR and antigen tests, on top of also securing a "health code" from the local embassy. This has all worked to discourage Chinese citizens from traveling at all, except for the most pressing of business – never mind for mere sightseeing.
Recently, this has begun to change as President Xi committed to a full reopening of his country’s borders. Quarantine requirements for returning travelers were removed while China also resumed issuing passports and travel visas for mainland residents. (READ: China reopens borders in final farewell to zero-COVID)
What can we expect?
The Philippines is banking on cash-rich Chinese visitors to bolster its tourism industry. And it seems that in the case of Boracay – with its glittering sand – China is eager to oblige. The Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xillian already met with Aklan officials and business groups on January 9, just as Boracay prepares to welcome back its biggest tourist market.
“We talked about the possibility of the return of Chinese tourists soon. We are happy about his visit,” Malay Mayor Floribar Bautista said in a phone interview with Rappler.
Pre-pandemic, Chinese tourists had dominated arrivals in Boracay. Nearly 150,000 Chinese visitors came to the island in 2018, with the number of tourists growing by only 46% the following year.
“There used to be 20-plus direct flights from China per week and almost 400,000 tourists yearly to Boracay before the pandemic. China is opening up again for international travel, and anticipates more Chinese outbound tourists later this year,” said the ambassador.
The DOT has also laid the groundwork for a wider revival of warm tourism ties with the Implementation Program signed during the President's recent state visit.
“This implementation program with China will generate massive employment opportunities and investments across all sectors of tourism throughout the Philippines," Tourism Secretary Christina Garcia Frasco said in a statement.
The deal broadly gives assurances that the two countries will mutually support development of their hotels, resorts, cruise, port, tourism products, and competency standards. Joint workshops and training sessions for cruise and port development, lake development, tourism security measures, tourism market and industry research are also in the works.
"Our governments will work together on increasing tourist arrivals, resuming and adding direct flights to key and emerging destinations, joint promotional activities, and inviting tourism investments in infrastructure, among others,” Frasco emphasized.
Both countries are also expected to support the other's travel fairs and tourism expeditions, with a renewed awareness about environmental protection and sustainable development.
“Among the salient points of this Implementation Program is to advocate the best practices and knowledge in sustainable tourism which includes the promotion of eco-friendly products and services," the tourism chief said, adding that both governments would also encourage investments in tourism infrastructure.
What about COVID-19?
However, China's recent COVID-19 surge threatens to hurt tourism before it even begins its recovery. Japan, South Korea, the US, and Canada have all increased restrictions on arrivals from China, such as requiring pre-departure or arrival COVID-19 tests and limiting flights.
For many tourist hot spots, the choice has become a delicate balancing act between economic recovery and pandemic safety. Chinese tourists represented the world’s largest outbound travel market in 2019. In the same year, Chinese tourists contributed $2.33 billion of the $9.31 billion in Philippine tourism revenue. Setting stricter quarantine measures could mean losing out on billions in revenue, should tourists be dismayed.
That in mind, countries have made varied adjustments to their health protocols. For instance, Thailand has been quick to remove vaccination requirements for inbound travelers ahead of an expected rush of Chinese tourists. Australia and Germany have also said they would not impose additional requirements for Chinese travel. The US, on the other hand, has required COVID-19 tests on travelers from China.
Currently, travelers arriving in the Philippines are only required to present a negative COVID-19 test if they are partially vaccinated or unvaccinated. Despite reporting on January 4 that eight unvaccinated Filipinos from China tested positive for COVID-19, the Department of Health does not yet see the need to tighten travel restrictions on arrivals from China.
Nevertheless, Frasco was optimistic that the reopening of the country and the easing of COVID-19 restrictions would allow the tourism industry to further recover in 2023. She added that the DOT is aiming for 4.8 million international arrivals as its baseline target for 2023.
“In the recent past, we have overcome a global pandemic, survived various calamities, and thrived throughout a host of many other challenges, yet, the Philippine tourism industry has managed to exceed expectations and our tourism partners and frontliners continue to offer the best of Filipino grace and hospitality to the world,” said the tourism chief in a New Year’s Eve message. – Rappler.com