The House Committee on Tourism chaired by Rep. Sol Aragones (3rd District, Laguna) convened in a special meeting recently to discuss the role of tourism in the proposed economic stimulus package being prepared by the House Defeat COVID-19 Committee (DCC) Economic Stimulus Response Cluster.

Aragones noted that the House Defeat COVID-19 Committee (DCC) Economic Stimulus Response Cluster is working to come up with a comprehensive economic stimulus package to ensure the economy remains afloat and weather the effects of the pandemic. As one of the committees comprising the cluster, the Committee on Tourism convened to deliberate on how the Department of Tourism (DOT) hopes to spur tourism and help it regain momentum.

The economic stimulus package proposes a budget of P43 billion for the tourism industry. According to veteran legislator, the budget shall be used for incentives for domestic tourism; interest-free loans for facility improvements; participation in tourism fairs to restore or identify new target markets; other forms of tourism promotion; and grants for education, training, and advising on coping with increased health risks arising from infectious diseases and other practices for mitigating the economic effects of COVID-19.

“We want to get an update from the DOT. Kumusta na ba ang turismo natin, saan tayo papunta, ano yung mga plano natin para muling makabangon. We also want to hear the recommendations, suggestions of House and committee members. Lastly, we want to hear mga sentimyento, plans, suggestions of our stakeholders sa ating tourism industry,” the seasoned lawmaker said.

She noted that both stakeholders and government officials were united in calling for increased efforts to encourage domestic travel as a major revenue generator.

“Nagkakasundo tayo, iisa yung thought natin na domestic tourism ‘yung linyang tatahakin natin…At the end of the day, importante magkaroon ng COVID-free model that will serve as standard for other hotels at lahat lahat pa na makapagsimula tayo ng turismo. Ang bottomline ng usapan natin ay gusto na natin makita ng “new normal” sa mundo ng turismo,” Aragones said.

She said she was confident that the industry will soon be back on track as long as stakeholders, government officials, and business owners continue to work together.

“At the end of the day, naniniwala ako na basta sama-sama tayo, kakaya at kakayanin natin ito. We heal as one,” Aragones said.

Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat discussed the DOT’s tourism response and recovery program as well as a snap shot of the “new normal” with regards to tourism activities.

“Tourism in the Philippines proved to be a significant pillar for the country’s economic development.”

“Tourism in the Philippines proved to be a significant pillar for the country’s economic development as it grew over the past 10 years in line with the Tourism Act of 2009. Not only has it contributed to 12.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019, but it also accounted for providing 5.4 million jobs to Filipinos in 2018 which was 13 percent of the total employment then,” Romulo-Puyat said.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have asked DOT officials about the agency’s economic strategies to cover the ill effects of the pandemic on the tourism sector and where would the P43 billion mitigating support fund from the national government be spent.

Rep. Estrellita Suansing (1st District, Nueva Ecija) lauded the DOT for crafting strategies for hotels, resorts, but noted it has no plans for the airline industry. Suansing also asked about possible loans the DOT could provide to those in the tourism sector. The veteran legislator also asked for specifics on how the DOT plans to spend the P43 billion stimulus budget for the tourism industry and the five-year, interest-free loans intended for the tourism sector.

DOT Undersecretary Benito Bengzon said the performance of foreign inbound arrivals in the first three months by January is growing by about 8 percent. The decline in tourists arrivals started in February at about minus 40 percent and March was really the hardest hit month at minus 70 percent, he said. “But these are tentative figures based on raw data that we are hoping (to come) from the Bureau of Immigration. But we are happy to provide the committee with the monthly breakdown as well as the effect on revenue for foreign visitors,” Bengzon said.

The tourism official said the DOT has consulted the Development Bank of the Philippines and Land Bank of the Philippines both of which have lending facilities with much lower interest rates and are commercially available. He said the DOT is also working on a mechanism for a dedicated window for tourism loans and still negotiating with another government agency, hoping to come up with a specific program for tourism enterprises that would need access to either low or zero interest rates.

Rep. Micaela Violago (2nd District, Nueva Ecija) proposed that it might be better to provide a loan with a minimum fixed interest rate for five years as the Landbank, DBP and other banks may not afford the zero interest rate on a period of five years.

Bengzon said that allocations for the P43 billion stimulus fund is a work in progress and that they value the inputs from the lawmakers. In his presentation, DOT Assistant Secretary Roberto Alabado showed the breakdown of the fund. The matrix showed that for soft loans as working capital of tourism enterprises, there is an allocation of P36 billion to provide more employment to people; P4 billion to jumpstart the TIEZA projects that are in the pipeline right now; and P500 million for marketing and support programs to promote domestic tourism, travel facilitation and intensified product market and development.

Additionally, P500 million shall be used to fund international market promotions and development of marketing materials and collaterals. Another P500 million shall be for capacity building for the industry stakeholders, including training of all stakeholders for the “new normal” and alternative livelihood programs which are important to micro and small businesses.

Alabado said there is a DOT proposal to allocate P1.5 billion for an institutional support program to include tourism crisis response and economic support fund, which can be used by the private sector in supporting their activities. And because of advanced technology, the tourism official said there is a need to integrate IT for tourist tracking and special database – using the GIS system- so that in case again of a crisis, their agency has the proper tools to deal with the situation on a rapid response.

Rep. Mark Go (Lone District, Baguio City) queried how many tourism industry employees were able to avail of cash assistance program of the DOLE and the COVID adjustment measure program (CAMP). Bengzon promised to provide the committee with the data.

Rep. Christopher de Venecia (4th District, Pangasinan) said the DOT may be able to avail of more assistance other than the P43 billion stimulus fund. De Venecia cited there are three kinds of assistance 1) transitional, 2) targeted and 3) structural.

Network of Independent Travel Agencies (NITAS) President Dr. Robert Joseph Jr. recommended developing the agri-tourism in the country and continuously come up with existing farms to convert them into farm tourism. He also advised that there should be standards for the tourism sector to be more attractive to tourists. “Domestic tourism is continuous. What we need is development of new destinations, cultural, historical, eco-tourism or even farm tourism,” Joseph said.

“Domestic tourism is continuous. What we need is development of new destinations, cultural, historical, eco-tourism or even farm tourism.”

He also asked support for the DOT on sustainable tourism. “We have an international school of sustainable tourism that is continuously training people all throughout the Philippines. What we have to do now it to incentivize and jumpstart everything because we cannot let go of our labor force,” Joseph said. He also called for support of all tourism stakeholders together with the government, particularly the DOT, DOTr, and DA in responding swiftly to the exigencies of the tourism industry amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Atty. Oscar Palabyab of Global Leadership in Tourism (GLIST) believed the tourism industry might not be open until September or it might take about a year for it to be running again.

“I fully support the proposal of Rep. Joey Salceda for the government to immediately intervene for its survival. I fully support the proposal of the Philippine Tourism Congress of the Philippines that says we need weight subsidies. We need to keep full employment so that businesses would not fold up. There should be a window for greater facilities to enable these businesses to have start-up capital. The way I look at it, by this time, working capital might have been used up already,” Palabyab said.

He also urged the DOT to consider realigning some of its unused funds for the assistance, relief, and recovery of the tourism industry.

Former DOT Undersecretary Alma Rita Jimenez gave some insights on how to help the SMSEs such as 1) how do you sustain loans and subsidies? It is through the creation of businesses, 2) we could jumpstart through the creation of a link chain to the creation of SMSEs, 3) financial assistance and subsidies can be used to promote sustainable tourism development by providing livelihood and employment program in the tourism industry, 4) require compliance to be the standards in providing infrastructure compliant to the COVID-19 facilities for tourism to be prepared and to keep other tourists safe, 5) jumpstart digital infrastructure in the industry, 6) pump priming the marketing strategy, 6) new parameters installed to measure results, and 7) start collaborating with SMSEs to become more bigger businesses.

Lastly, Philippine Travel Agencies Association, Inc. (PTAA) President Jose Ma. Renard Gregory Tuaño thanked the DOT for extending their assistance to the tourism and travel industries. Tuaño said the DOT has already been coordinating with several agencies, such as the Social Security System (SSS) and PhilHealth, in efforts to provide financial support to the adversely affected workforce.

He stressed the importance of streamlining all government efforts on the Wage Subsidy Program and designing a more efficient strategy for the distribution of assistance. However, while the SSS is currently accepting applications for the subsidy, he raised that the SSS website is constantly experiencing technical problems, which should be looked into immediately.

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