December 10, 2022

Baguio’s tourism, one of the Summer Capital’s main economic drivers, is looking to be in a better shape by the last quarter of a tumultuous 2021 that preceded a year of massive lockdowns and strict community quarantines.
2021 started a little shaky for the industry with renewed uncertainties following the emergence of the Delta variant. Baguio then was still in the thick of imposing restrictions, eased on and off, and borders closed and opened, due to the unpredictable behavior of the virus that led to periods of lull and surge of Covid-19 cases in the city for the most part of 2021.
The year that was, still, may have been considered better than 2020, when anti-Covid-19 vaccines started making its way into the country around March, offering hopes of curbing the virus, if not eliminating it completely.
While it initially came in trickles due to global demand, the arrival of more vaccines the following months after its initial rollout meant a huge step towards new normal, which for local government units that largely rely on tourism like Baguio meant to welcome back tourists safely and get back on its feet for a better normal.
But this hope was dampened with the surges driven by the detection of new Covid-19 variants, first the UK variant during the first part of the year and the Delta variant in August which derailed plans of reviving the local economy through the tourism industry.
After three quarters of riding the tide by employing the hammer and dance strategy, Baguio’s tourism industry is almost back to normal as per data from the City Tourism and Special Events Office, with tourists noticeably back in their usual full force, giving the tourism-related businesses and industries a chance to recover from almost two years of heavy losses.
After a year that also allowed tourist spots to breathe, rejuvenate, and undergo improvements, the city and its people in December is reminded of how it feels like to be jam-packed and brimming with visitors once again.
However, another threat is looming with the detection of the latest Covid-19 strain, the Omicron variant, late November and its entry into the country early December.
Like with the Delta variant that caused a case surge in the city in September, Mayor Benjamin Magalong warned it is only a matter of time for the Omicron to enter the city reason why a contingency plan has again been put in place to delay or possibly keep the more transmissible variant from entering the city.
Welcoming back visitors in droves starting November did not happen overnight for the city. Control systems and measures adopted since the city first experienced a case surge in September 2020 continued to undergo fine-tuning while sustaining the strategy of applying the necessary restrictions when cases increase and starting to open up again when the surge lets up as a way of managing the Covid-19.
The city and its neighboring Benguet towns early in the year implemented strict border controls while under the general community quarantine status in light of the detection of the Covid-19 UK variant in the Cordillera.
For the second time, the city moved to a later date and eventually did not push through with the Panagbenga Festival. Instead of its grand opening every Feb. 1, a landscape exhibit initiated by employees of Baguio Country Club was opened to offer the public a new place to visit where the city still showcase the season of blooming minus the revelry, and to commemorate the Panagbenga.
The city also lined up just a few and toned-down activities, mostly leaning towards rejuvenation, for the Holy Week, another crowd-drawing season as part of the annual Summer Vacation in Baguio.
Travel restrictions were still up with only essential travels allowed. Baguio at one point required individuals coming from the LISTT to present either a health declaration, medical clearance, IDs depending on travelers’ classification before being allowed to enter the city to maintain its downtrend of Covid cases.
The night market along Harrison Road resumed its operation on Feb. 28 under strict conditions as part of the thrust to reopen the city’s economy and restore the livelihood of displaced vendors.
Around March, the new travel protocols for travelers by the national IATF created confusion when it removed the negative Covid-19 test result as a travel requirement. While LGUs may still require the same, the city has decided not to require RT-PCR test then to boost local economy, among other reasons.
It was also during this month the city started the vaccination rollout for its eligible population.
Baguio’s online portal visita.baguio.gov.ph was then flooded with travel requests from tourists, but it was not still half of the previous target tourist arrivals. City Supervising Tourism Officer Alec Mapalo said it will take time to pick up. Prior to the pandemic, the city averaged 10,000 tourists that could reach up to 20,000 on normal weekends during non-peak seasons and 100,000 for a two-day weekend during peak seasons.
It also continued with the closure of Session Road for the Sunday market showcase after tourism activities were allowed under GCQ and to stimulate economic activity by allowing micro, small, and medium enterprises to sell their products along the city’s main thoroughfare.
One of the lowest points of the city’s tourism industry was the cancellation of pre-booked travels from the National Capital Region and four other provinces because of the restriction imposed by the IATF due to the surge in Delta variant cases in these areas, except for work-related and essential travels.
This was when the vaccination rollout was supposed to be in full swing but was struggling due to the limited vaccine supplies reaching the city. The city was also logging in new UK variants and a rising death toll around April.
Downtrend in cases was projected with the aggressive community testing and placing of the city’s epidemic risk level at moderate risk.
To help spur economic recovery, Magalong has suggested to the national IATF to allow those who have received complete doses of anti-Covid vaccine to travel without restrictions.
While an uptrend in the number of tourist arrivals was noted in June, it was still below target, yet better than the previous months.
The city then speeded up contingencies against the Delta variant around July and true enough, the city recorded its first case in August that led to case surges, high death toll until September, and consequently to strict border controls and halting of non-essential trips to the city.
The city eyed an early downtrend in cases, supported by the fact that many were getting vaccinated and the city reaching its target community protection.
With a sustained downtrend in new cases, the city again started accepting tourists Oct. 25 advising them to strictly comply with online registration requirements and only those who are fully vaccinated are allowed.
The rebound started being felt by end of October, but still the city was cautious to ensure health and safety of residents will not be compromised, as the continuing threat of the Delta variant was still present.
“Hopefully our reopening will spur economic activity in our city, particularly our tourism industry, which was heavily impacted for the past two months because of the restrictions that we imposed to manage the cases,” Magalong told reporters Oct. 25.
He expressed hopes that the downtrend in cases will continue to provide both respite for the city’s health care system and recovery window for the economic sector.
“It has not been easy but as we have been doing since the pandemic started, we will continue to strike a balance between managing our cases and giving premium to the health and safety of our constituents on the one hand and keeping our economy afloat and sustaining the people’s livelihood on the other,” he said.
By the last two months of 2021, hotels and accommodations were fully booked for the Yuletide season, a turnaround from zero tourist arrivals in the past two months when the city was under general community quarantine with heightened restrictions.
Tourism is definitely back to being alive and kicking in Baguio and it’s almost like normal. Since accepting back tourists in November initially at 2,000 slots, the city has added up to more than 5,000 slots from the previous 4,000 slots for leisure travel starting Dec. 15.
Mapalo said the highest number of leisure travel arrivals based on Baguio Visita online registration is 5,643 on Dec. 11 and this did not include those coming in as essential/official/business travels, which may be up to 500 a day.
Baguio’s daily average of tourist arrivals in December before the pandemic is 6,000. Mapalo said the city was able to allow more than the 4,000 limit set earlier since hotels with own triage facilities can now approve and process for their guests independently, beyond the Visita limit but within their allowed capacity.
From Dec. 1 to 12, the city government approved 63,855 travels, 45,812 of which are actual arrivals via the central triage.
Based on assessment, the number is 71.74 percent of the city’s tourism figures pre-pandemic.
“We can say that we’re back in business, with many fully booked hotels, shops, and restaurants having their regular customers, but not necessarily the overcrowding and monstrous traffic. This is a prelude to the better normal that will advance and promote responsible and sustainable tourism for all to advocate and enjoy,” Mapalo said.
However, the recovery process may again be halted with the looming threat of the Omicron variant. Magalong said control measures are in full effect, hoping it will be able to stop or delay Omicron’s entry.
The city, he said, might once again tighten measures once it hits, placing plans for the tourist season in 2022 on a wait and see status. – Hanna C. Lacsamana