Health care, tourism recovery key issues in Visayas polls
(Fourth of a series)
CEBU CITY, Cebu, Philippines — Cases of the coronavirus may have been on a decline, but its impact still lingers in many parts of the Visayas.
For one, several provinces dependent on tourism have yet to recover from the effects of restrictions on leisure travel in the past two years. The pandemic also exposes problems in the healthcare system, especially in poorer Visayan provinces.
With COVID-19 still a threat, tourism and health care are taking center stage this May elections as voters choose among potential leaders who will present concrete plans to address problems related to these issues.
In Cebu province, two gubernatorial candidates agree that tourism is needed to boost the economy battered by the pandemic.
“Majority of our (local governments’) economies are tourism based and (mostly) dependent on the foreign market, the foreign tourists,” said reelectionist Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia.
In 2019, a year before the pandemic was declared, Cebu hosted 1.4 million foreign tourists, according to the Department of Tourism (DOT).
Cebu, where the country’s second busiest airport operates, was only 200,000 foreign visitors short of arrivals recorded on Boracay Island, the top tourist destination in the country, with 1.6 million foreign guests that same year.
While he agreed reopening the tourism industry to foreigners, gubernatorial candidate and former Tourism Secretary Joseph “Ace” Durano criticized how the Garcia administration handled the pandemic.
“We can see that the hospitals are neglected. That is why I am here now because I will be the voice for all those who are unsatisfied with the COVID-19 response of the provincial government,” he said.
If elected governor, Durano vowed to improve all four provincial hospitals and 12 district hospitals in the province.
Garcia denied that she mismanaged the provincial and district hospitals, which critics claimed resulted in the overflowing of COVID-19 patients in Cebu City hospitals.
She said medical equipment in provincial hospitals were upgraded and at least 72 medical personnel were promoted, reappointed and regularized.
Learning from pandemic
The pandemic has also highlighted the need to upgrade the health-care system in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental.
Dr. Julius Drilon, chief of the Corazon Locsin Montelibano Memorial Regional Hospital (CLMMRH) in Bacolod, said local officials should learn from the pandemic and prioritize health care.
“COVID-19 did not break our health-care system. It merely exposed how broken it already was,” Drilon said.
Local governments, he said, and not just the national government, should allocate more funds to health facilities, especially district and provincial hospitals, to avoid overwhelming regional hospitals and those in highly urbanized cities.
Drilon said the establishment of more molecular laboratories in provincial centers to fast-track and widen COVID-19 testing should be continued, especially by the government.
But the revival of the tourism industry remains a top priority to revive the economy.
In Western Visayas, tourist arrivals have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels although tourist destinations have reopened and visitors have started to return.
About 5.8 million tourists visited Western Visayas in 2019, contributing P131 billion to the regional economy.
Flord Nicson Calawag, president of the Antique Association of Hotel, Resort and Restaurant Owners Inc., said the volume of tourists in the province was about half of pre-pandemic arrivals.
He said local governments and officials could help the tourism industry recover by promoting their destinations.
Iloilo City, which has been experiencing years of fast-paced growth, is among those severely affected by prolonged and repeated lockdowns and travel and quarantine restrictions.
Although businesses have started to reopen due to relaxed health protocols, full recovery will take some time.
“While there is a semblance of normalcy, there is still that apprehension among business owners that things can change at a blink of an eye,” said a business leader, who asked not to be named in this report.
Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which bore the brunt of the economic impact of the pandemic, are the most in need of support.
“They are the ones who employ the bulk of our workforce and we can only hire employees again if they are earning revenues,” the business leader said.
Among the interventions that local governments and officials can implement are those that reduce the cost of business in applying or renewing permits and licenses, and payment of fees.
“One-stop shops for businesses were implemented during the pandemic as a health measure. These should be institutionalized and enhanced,” the source said.
Among the measures that should be pushed or ensured is how to help MSMEs avail of government assistance, including low-interest loans to keep them afloat and recover.
In Central Visayas, local governments have initiated programs to kickstart the tourism industry.
In Cebu City, the Cebu City Tourism Commission (CCTC) on April 7 launched the Highland Pilgrimage Tour where people can visit the mountains and other destinations in the Queen City of the South.
In Bohol, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has implemented programs to help affected tourism workers.
Maria Soledad Laxa-Balistoy, DTI provincial director, said they were finalizing plans to develop the “creative sector” in the province, including visual and performing arts, culture, crafts, music and food, among others.
In Eastern Visayas, Karina Rosa Tiopes, DOT regional director, said she was happy that candidates in this year’s elections had promised to prioritize tourism as a means to bounce back from the pandemic.
“We also look forward to working hand in hand with them to craft a new medium-term strategic tourism plan (as) we need tourism governance that will encourage more tourism-related investments, and promote the well-being of stakeholders,” she added.
—REPORTS FROM ADOR VINCENT MAYOL, DALE ISRAEL, NESTOR P. BURGOS JR., JOEY GABIETA AND LEO UDTOHAN
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