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What a day to show that we are more than ready to move on from the pandemic. On Friday, the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 is no longer a global public health emergency. It was the day before the Go Negosyo Tourism Summit 2023.
The venue at the SM Seaside City Cebu was filled with thousands of entrepreneurs, some from the tourism industry while others were MSMEs from various sectors. Very few were still wearing face masks, and most of our guests opted to instead don the smiles that Cebu is famous for.
SM Seaside City is quite impressive. Our venue was well-ventilated and offered ample space to move around. We had guests from all over the province, and even from neighboring Bohol and from Siargao, Boracay, Quezon province, Davao and South Cotabato – all tourism stars in their own right. Everybody and everything converges in Cebu, and rightly so. Cebu has everything one could wish for in a modern metropolis, and all of the charms of the Filipino. I can see why Gov. Gwen Garcia is proud of Cebu.
The WHO declaration is particularly affirming for me because a few days before the summit, I had been in discussions and interviews on the planned re-imposition of face mask mandates. Positivity rates have been steadily rising over the past weeks, most markedly in the National Capital Region. Despite that, hospitals remained normal, with none of those scenes we saw back in 2020 when we still had no vaccines and our doctors have yet to fully understand COVID-19.
I argued in interviews that in the three years we have been dealing with the virus, we have learned to mask up in crowded and poorly ventilated areas, to isolate when sick and, most importantly, to get vaccinated in order to avoid the terrible effects of being infected.
From my travels since the lockdowns of 2020 and up until recently, I have seen how much things have changed. In many parts of the world, COVID is no longer an issue. I’ve been to weddings, basketball games and meetings with world leaders and top businessmen, around Asia, America and Europe – everywhere people are moving on.
Yesterday I traveled to Bali for ASEAN meetings. Whenever I am in this undoubted superstar of tourism in Southeast Asia, I cannot help but feel that the Philippines is undeservedly playing second fiddle to its neighbors in the region. This despite the fact that we have such beautiful beaches, amazing dive sites and warm, welcoming people. I have traveled to the small islands throughout the Visayas and I can tell you that they are by far much, much more breathtaking than any I have seen elsewhere.
I also feel strongly about tourism, not only out of pride for my country, but also because it has the potential to do so much for our countrymen.
Tourism, as Gov. Garcia rightly put it, is Negosyo. Tourism Sec. Christina Garcia-Frasco is also a passionate advocate of tourism as a driver of economic growth. Everytime you buy a pasalubong, she said, you help a Filipino family and you help promote tourism. Tourism accelerates progress, helps communities, creates jobs and is a catalyst for entrepreneurship. Proof of this are the 20 entrepreneurs we honored at the Tourism Summit, all of them deserving of admiration for their resilience and innovativeness, and some even more so for helping indigenous peoples, women and even persons with disabilities.
I have said before that tourism’s reach is so broad across industries such as retail, transportation, food and services, that the ripple effects of a slowdown or a rise in tourism activity are felt strongly among small and micro-entrepreneur, most especially those in the provinces.
Another thing I have in common with Gov. Garcia and Sec. Frasco is our insistence on projecting to the world that the Philippines is moving on from COVID and is open for business. If we create the wrong impression, that is, that we are still on alert for COVID infections, tourism and other businesses will suffer. We have to build up confidence that we Filipinos have learned to live with COVID and that we know how to manage the risks.
Some weeks ago, people became concerned after the words “Alert Level” once again entered our everyday conversations following the rise in COVID infections. That really puzzled me because we are no longer under a state of public health emergency. I proposed instead that public health warnings be issued, as we would when dengue cases rise. I hope that our pandemic response teams appreciate how much weight their words carry. Confidence is still building up at this point and we don’t need to dampen the hopes of people. We must assure them, and our investors and foreign visitors, that we are back to normal.
Let’s be cognizant that COVID is around, same as dengue, the flu and shingles, but let us let people take responsibility for their own health. Our job now is to focus on the economy. At our Tourism Summit, you can feel that the ordinary Filipino is raring to move on. Our entrepreneurs are ready to receive guests, entertain customers, move their products and render their services. Let’s not get in their way.