By Sara Gómez Armas
Boracay, Philippines, Oct 2 (efe-epa).- Filipinos, who have had to endure one of the longest Covid-19 quarantines in the world, now have the opportunity to escape to the beach, with the re-opening of the idyllic island of Boracay to domestic tourists.
However, visitors to the island, famous for its white sandy beaches, palm trees and crystal clear water, have to first meet stringent requirements, including a negative PCR test.
“I think the negative PCR requirement may be a big deterrent for visitors to come to Boracay, but we also need to think of the safety of our guests,” Roland Galano, general manager at Belmont, among the most exclusive hotels in Boracay, told EFE.
Hygiene and safety measures have also been increased, such as QR bookings to avoid filling out forms, automatic alcohol dispensers, disinfection of rooms with ultraviolet radiation and mandatory use of masks.
The Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted Boracay, the country’s smallest inhabited island almost entirely dependent on the more than 2 million tourists it receives annually. A quarter of the 8.2 million foreign visitors to the Philippines in 2018 visited Boracay.
Allowing local tourists back to the island – where an estimated 15.000 people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic – has been one of the priorities of the government.
Since October, Boracay has been the only destination to allow visitors from all parts of the country, including Manila, the main hotspot of the novel coronavirus in the Philippines.
“The reopening of Boracay is a crucial first step for the revival of our industry, in a safe and gradual way,” Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said at a press conference, and urged visitors to be “responsible tourists.”
Visitors must send their personal details, hotel bookings and flight confirmation to the local authorities before their travel, and obtain a personal QR code that works as a permit to enter and move freely on the island.
But the requirement for PCR test 48 hours before traveling to the island has been criticized for its high price – between $90 and $200 depending on the laboratory – and for the workload it can entail in a country with more than 300,000 cases of Covid-19, while the curve continues to rise.
The authorities are aware that the requirement of PCR tests may be a deterrent, but have stressed that these measures are only temporary.
“We know the PCR requirement is very difficult for our tourists to comply with. But at the same time, it’s necessary and we do not want an immediate influx of tourists that we are not able to control,” explained Boracay Governor Florencio Miraflores.
To offset the cost of PCR tests, the governor said that many hotels have committed to lower their rates for the time being, such as the Belmont hotel, where the average price per room has fallen from $100 to $50.
“We were fully booked last January, before the pandemic, but now, these last months we just had three or four rooms occupied,” Galano said, as Boracay opened in July only to visitors from neighboring islands, which has been insufficient to keep tourism afloat.
Currently, 204 properties with a total of 4,475 rooms meet the health requirements for reopening and will operate at 50 percent capacity, while the daily visitor limit on the island has been set at 2,000, a figure unlikely to be reached in the first few days.
When Boracay reopened on Oct. 1, only one flight with 26 passengers arrived on the island, with seven of the visitors coming from the capital city of Manila, which has been under lockdown for more than six months.
“We are confident we will receive more and more visitors in the coming weeks. It’s normal people are reluctant at the beginning. We expect more tourists during the weekend and we know that the hotels are already receiving bookings,” said the governor.
However, entrepreneurs and professionals in the tourism sector admit that the business will not recover entirely until foreign tourists are allowed in.
“For our business they (international tourists) are very important, (they are) our main clients. Koreans and Chinese, they love barbecue,” said Malou Sitao, head of the Backyard BBQ restaurant, who went from having more than 15 employees before the pandemic to reopening now with only five.