[OPINION] A novel health strategy for post-pandemic tourism

The COVID-19 pandemic has, undoubtedly, badly hit all sectors of society – and the tourism industry was certainly not spared. Tourism is one of the engines of the Philippine economy. In 2018, the Philippines welcomed 8.2 million international tourists and recorded 111 million domestic tourist trips. That year, tourism generated 12.7% of our country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), added a gross value of P2.2 trillion to the economy, and employed 5.4 million persons. The Department of Tourism already reported that tourism revenue already plunged by 35% just in the first quarter of 2020, and this trend is expected to continue as the pandemic ensues in the months and years to come.

With the resolution of this pandemic relying on the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, worldwide tourism must brace itself for a long and difficult recovery ahead. A report by TwoEco, Inc., a sustainability consulting firm, revealed that travelers plan to delay their domestic and international trips until they are assured of safety not only in their desired destinations but throughout the whole experience of travel. Hence, in order to regain travelers’ confidence sooner rather than later, countries heavily dependent on tourism such as the Philippines must become proactive in dramatically reducing community transmission in general and freeing important tourist spots from COVID-19 in particular.

COVID-19-proofing tourist destinations will mean that they implement measures over and above what is required by Department of Tourism guidelines. Some of these advanced measures may include investing in infection control facilities such as widespread availability of disinfectants and improved ventilation, redesigning public spaces to allow greater social distancing, and utilizing innovative and science-informed technologies for contact tracing and testing.

In addition, this COVID-19 moment also provides an opportunity to revisit local tourism plans and redesign specific tourist locations using a strong public health lens. The goal must be that once the pandemic is over, our tourist destinations are not just coronavirus-free; they are also positively contributing to the health of both people and the planet in the long run.

How does health – or the lack thereof – manifest in Philippine tourist spots? For instance, many of our famous natural wonders – for instance, beaches, waterfalls, and mountains – are in places where healthcare systems are generally weak and ill-resourced. Remember the case of one celebrity who complained on social media about a local hospital being ill-equipped and undermanned, hence was unable to adequately tend her injured husband? 

After this pandemic, our world-class tourist spots must also become home to world-class health care. Tourist business owners can partner with local governments to strengthen the capacity and performance of primary healthcare facilities and community hospitals. Such partnerships can ensure that the local health system has adequate human resources, steady supply of medicines, and available medical equipment such as X-rays and even CT-scans for urgent diagnosis and management. In certain locations, investments in sea or helicopter ambulances can guarantee uninterrupted patient referral if advanced care is required elsewhere. These healthcare investments will contribute to the country’s goal of achieving universal health care, which will benefit not just tourists but also locals as well.

Meanwhile, as a tropical country, the Philippines is an infectious disease hotspot. COVID-19 may have started in Wuhan, China, but it is just a matter of time when the next epidemic emanates from the Philippine jungle. Many natural tourist spots such as caves and hiking trails are located in forest ecosystems that are rich in both wildlife and microbes. As human activities such as tourism encroach into natural habitat, interactions between humans and animals become more frequent and the risk of a "zoonotic leap" by a virus heightens.

Because of this tightening of the human-animal-environment interface, environmental conservation and health protection must go hand in hand to achieve long-term pandemic prevention. A “One Health” approach that brings together doctors, veterinarians, ecologists, and other professionals – including tourism planners and business owners – will ensure that natural habitats are not disturbed, and infectious disease outbreaks are prevented at the source. With support from the tourism sector, environmentalists and health workers can work together in the active surveillance of new infectious diseases that have pandemic potential, many of them living inside animals such as bats, snakes, monkeys, and pangolins.

Beyond infection prevention, tourist destinations may also serve as promoters of healthy lifestyles. Especially those enjoying their much-awaited holiday, vacationers may be too eager to eat to their hearts’ desire at the buffet or engage in unhealthy behavior like smoking and drinking – which all contribute to the development of chronic noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and cancer.

The World Health Organization implements a “Healthy Settings” program – healthy cities, healthy schools, healthy hospitals, etc. – and this similar framework must be adapted to the tourism industry. Healthy tourist destinations must be well designed and planned to minimize unhealthy behavior and maximize health and well-being among tourists and locals alike. Restaurants may choose to serve nutritious and sustainably produced foods, resorts may designate smoking areas to protect children from second-hand smoke, and responsible drinking in tourist sites may be strictly enforced. These healthy actions can be packaged alongside social distancing measures and hygiene practices that travelers will need to abide by to protect themselves from COVID-19.

In the age of COVID-19, Philippine tourist sites must embrace the mindset that they are, first and foremost, in the business of safety. This notion of safety can be expanded beyond the pandemic – travelers must feel safe from all kinds of threats in a tourist destination all the time. For instance, many tourist attractions are located in geographies or promote activities that increase the likelihood of physical injury and drowning. In order to not overburden the healthcare infrastructure earlier described, there must be a concomitant attention given to physical safety and injury prevention through interventions ranging from heightened information dissemination to safe and people-friendly architectural design.

This holistic health agenda for post-pandemic tourism must build on existing “eco-tourism” efforts to embed environmental protection within the sector. At the end of the day, unsustainable tourism can lead to the destruction of natural ecosystems which then can generate new health problems in return – whether a pandemic, exposure to toxic pollution, or even long-term climate change. Thus, a unified framework for advancing the health of both people and the planet must be the “new normal” for tourism. Such an integrated mindset will not just prevent the next pandemic, but also create healthy societies and preserve ecological integrity for today’s generation of tourists and those yet to come.

The Philippines can be a world leader in healthy and sustainable tourism in the post-coronavirus era. For the longest time, health has never been a priority in the management of tourist destinations and in the governance of domestic and international tourism in general. COVID-19 is a wake-up call that health must be central in post-pandemic tourism strategy – since after all, tourism thrives only when there are healthy people on a healthy planet. – Rappler.com

An Obama Asia-Pacific Leader and Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, Dr. Renzo Guinto (@RenzoGuinto) is the Chief Planetary Doctor of PH Lab and recent Doctor of Public Health graduate of Harvard University. The author wishes to thank Mark Richard Evidente of TwoEco, Inc., a sustainability consulting firm, for his input.