FOR Catalina Pacyaan and her fellow souvenir stall proprietors, the day starts at seven o’clock in the morning. From that early hour on, the stalls along Wright Park are open until evening, hoping to bag sales from the tourists that pass by. 

Pacyaan has run her stall beside the tourist attraction for the past 21 years, starting back in the year 2000. For two decades, she has been supporting her family with the income from selling souvenirs to visitors, but the past two years of the global pandemic have been rough on her and her fellows, she says.

The tourism-reliant Baguio City has not been spared by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Summer Capital heavily draws much of its economy and sustenance from tourist activity and money, which has become much more difficult to obtain as lockdowns and travel restrictions clamp down on the country.

However, the city has managed to endure thus far, through a mixture of various initiatives, reopening of the borders, and adaptation with its traditional tourist-drawing activities.

 

 Heavy losses

The city of Baguio has been assailed by the COVID-19 pandemic from the start, as travel restrictions have hampered the inward flow of tourists and tourist money alike.

Baguio saw a total loss of P3.5 billion pesos in the previous year as lockdowns and restrictions shut down oncoming traffic from outside city borders.

For a time in the previous year, and for portions of 2021 as well, even local tourism closed down as precautions against COVID-19, shutting down a significant chunk of the tourist-reliant local economy.

During the height of the Luzon-wide lockdowns from April to June 2020, local tourism sustained P1.6 billion worth of lost potential income while some P550 million worth of wages and earnings by tourism-related businesses and their employees in the city were lost, according to Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong. The lost income ballooned throughout the year to P3.5 billion by year-end.

Magalong added that 2020 saw less than one-seventh of the normal tourist volume expected by regular figures, seeing only around 232,000 compared to pre-pandemic numbers of around 1.7 million tourists yearly on average.

The losses continue to the current year, where currently, the city, as per set quota, only sees a maximum of 3,000 tourists a day, whereas previous holiday seasons averaged up to 30,000 tourists per day.

Over the course of the pandemic, a large portion of Baguio’s numerous lodging establishments closed down, according to both the Baguio City Tourism Office (CTO) and the Hotels and Restaurants Association of Baguio (HRAB).

The HRAB, in the early days of the pandemic in 2020, reported many registered lodging establishments having zero occupancies. HRAB member and Hotel Supreme manager, Jeff Ng, accompanied by other members of the HRAB, had previously asked the city for assistance in the form of a tax break or a subsidy from the city’s Quick Response Fund (QRF), both of which were denied by the city.

Even as the city has reopened to tourism in the current day, a vast majority of the city’s various lodging establishments remain closed, having been unable to sustain themselves on zero to low tourist influx.

  According to CTO head Aloysius Mapalo, of the 1,200 registered lodging businesses in the city, only a third or 400 lodging establishments, hotels, and inns have been able to resume operations as of October this year.

Of the businesses in the city, aside from tourism-related businesses such as lodgings and tourist sites, the harder-hit sector of the city’s economy has been the micro, small and medium enterprise (MSME) sector.

The MSME sector has been hit in the entirety of the Cordillera Region, with only 15 percent of MSMEs in the region including Baguio having been able to continue full operations, with the rest either operating in a limited capacity or having shut down completely, according to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI-CAR) Regional Director Juliet Lucas.

  Pacyaan is no exception to these losses. She recounts the previous year of 2020 as a time of zero income when they had to drain their savings and rely on the occasional government ayuda of rice and canned goods and other food items to stay afloat.

 Hindi kami makapag-open noon. Talagang wala. So dumukot kami mula dun sa naipon na namin dati pa. Hirap na kami noon, paano pa yung iba na isang benta, isang saing ng kanin? ” Pacyaan recounted.

 (We couldn’t open back then. There was nothing. So we dug into our savings from the past. We were already having a hard time, what more for the others who need to sell to have rice?)

However, she claims that she and the other stall proprietors were lucky enough that the land-owner has charged them no rent since the stalls reopened in July, knowing that income is still extremely low.

 

Assistance and stimulus for sickly Baguio

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Baguio City government rolled out multiple initiatives and programs to provide livelihood assistance to the city’s residents and businesses alike.

Early during the lockdowns, Baguio distributed food relief packages to the city’s less fortunate residents, but only a fraction of residents received the limited supplies, such as Pacyaan and her family.

The city also released two tranches of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) of the national government through the City Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO) over the course of the pandemic, providing one-time P5,500 cash assistance to the city residents. The SAP program reached some 45,000 targeted beneficiaries in the city, but without the continued funding of the national government, stopped in 2020 in Baguio.

To support the city’s MSMEs, the local government of Baguio released Baguio’s Revitalization Actions for a Vibrant Economy – Economic Stimulus Package (BRAVE-ESP), a system to provide interest-free loans for Baguio’s MSMEs to spur local economic growth.

Initially, the City Treasury Office earmarked P100 million for the BRAVE-ESP loans, but the amount was then cut down to less than P40 million after the remainder was shifted instead to direct COVID-19 response following low interest in the stimulus loans amongst city MSMEs.

According to the treasury office, of the P31,751,120 available under the current BRAVE-ESP program, only 213 loan applications totaling only P8,767,000 of assistance have been approved. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Brigit Piok, head of the City Veterinary and Agriculture Office (CVAO), said that their office has attempted to reach out to residents directly by distributing some 10,000 chickens, 1,800 rabbits, and 100 bee colonies to Baguio residents for use as a source of livelihood, affecting some 1,400 residents.

 Reopening the borders

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Baguio City has closed and reopened its borders multiple times, as early as March in 2020, and as recent as October in 2021.

The most recent Baguio lockdown started in early September, lasting until the tail-end of October, when Baguio finally reopened to tourists on the 30th.

Various systems have been put in place to control the influx of tourists at the borders. The city’s central method of controlling tourist flow has been the Baguio Visitor Information and Tourist Assistance (VISITA) system, an online platform where tourists are required to register and be approved prior to entry into the city.

The VISITA system includes important information such as health status and connects visitors to accredited accommodation establishments in Baguio.

The system was launched alongside the touted tourism bubbles early in October of last year, where the city partnered with the Department of Tourism (DOT) to connect Baguio City with La Union, Pangasinan, Ilocos Sur, and Ilocos Norte (LUPISIN). A similar bubble was planned with San Fernando City in La Union, early in the year, with both bubbles being attempts to encourage partial tourism to and from specific provinces and cities while border lockdowns remained in place, but both bubbles fell into disuse.

Instead, constant changes in border restrictions, both at the hands of the local and provincial government, as well as changing guidelines provided by the national Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) have led to a string of tightening and easing of border controls throughout the course of the pandemic.

Under current guidelines, tourism is once again active in the city, provided that incoming tourists first register with the VISITA system, and provide proof of full vaccination once screened in the city’s central triage facility. 

With the set cap of a maximum 3,000 tourists per day, a mere tenth of pre-pandemic daily averages as the holiday season looms of 20,000 to 30,000 tourists daily, the city is really on baby steps to recovering tourism income.

The cap started at 2,000 per day which fell below the actual demand according to Mapalo, head of the CTO. Over the first week of November, immediately after the most recent reopening of borders to tourism, the number of tourists already exceeded the limit, with the peak on October 30 seeing 2,630 arrivals, beyond the cap. The number was thus raised to 3,000 per day.

As of the evening of November 25, arrivals already hit the maximum allowed bookings of 3,000 passing through central triage plus various blue passes, which are for tourists heading past the central triage and straight to one of the handful of accommodation establishments which have accredited and trained triage staff and a triage facility of their own. The stretch from November 26 to 29 alone saw a total of 11,710 bookings through theVISITA online platform.

However, even as Baguio reopens to tourism, smaller tourist-reliant establishments such as Pacyaan’s stall and the many others in Wright Park, as well as other similar establishments in the city’s less-accessed tourist attractions remain in the red.

 Marami na ngang tao, pero dito banda sa amin, di parang dun sa Mines View (Park). Dito banda sa amin, ang dumadaan lang yung mga sumasakay ng kabayo, pero pag tapos na sila sa kabayo, aalis na sila tapos wala nang bibilihin samin. Tsambahan pa rin kami kung makapagbenta (The number of people have increased, but here where we are, it’s unlike Mines View Park. Around here, the only people that pass by are those that ride horses, but once they’re done riding horses, they leave and don’t buy anything. It’s all luck if we can make sales),” Pacyaan says of their situation.

 Adjusting to the new normal through art

Even as Baguio reopens to tourism, the city is still making moves to adapt its tourism industry to the new normal.

Baguio City, in the height of the pandemic, has still continued with its tourist-drawing festivals save for the most renowned Panagbenga, with two new festivals-cum-fairs having sprung up in the time of the pandemic.

Most of the currently-held festivals in Baguio – the Mandeko Kito trade fair run by the Baguio Arts and Crafts Collective, Inc. (BACCI) and the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB), the Ibag-iw Creative City Festival which showcases Cordilleran art and cultural goods, and the Saleng Festival which aims to bolster the city’s environment through tree-planting and other environmental activities – are currently held over a long duration of time, at least a month on average and heavily showcase the art and culture scene of the city.

Festivals in Baguio are now designed to not be crowd-drawers and are spread out across the city, highlighting goods and crafts.

According to Department of Tourism-Cordillera (DOT-CAR) Regional Director Jovi Ganongan, the showcases of local arts and crafts, as well as the selling of said products created by local artisans, is a form of assistance to the ailing cultural and arts communities of Baguio, who have struggled to stay afloat as their income is usually tourist-reliant.

Branding and theming for Baguio’s tourism have shifted in recent years to focus more on culture and arts, with the city’s activities leaning heavily towards showcasing the city’s suite of artisans, artists, and producers. The city is taking advantage of its designation as a Creative City as declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Department of Trade Regional Director Juliet Lucas has meanwhile touted the agency’s support for the city’s artists in the form of weekly capability building activities and opening a pipeline for the artists to showcase and sell their work in the lowlands in Manila in November, which provides income as well as entices tourists to come up and view more of what Baguio’s cultural and artistic scene has to offer.

 Maricar Docyogen of the Pasakalye Group of Artists has also tapped local artists to partner with the DOT-CAR to showcase art at Wright Park, with more than 40 local artists involved in the project.

Various other exhibitions of the city’s arts and culture, drawing tourists and residents alike, have been put into place throughout the month of November and even into December as the Christmas season looms.

 

 A cautious optimism

The city has been gearing for a slow return to form in tourism, focusing on safety above all. Limits remain in place for tourist entry, even as the city’s VISITA system begins logging 10,000 to 20,000 entry requests.

 Meanwhile, even as traditional tourism industries remain mostly closed, the city has advanced vaccinations for the city’s registered tourism workers, some 7,500 of whom have been vaccinated in a single batch at the behest of DOT Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, in advance of expected reopening to more and more tourists.

Plans for improving and rehabilitating the city’s tourist attractions are still in the pipeline. Plans conceived prior to the pandemic, and halted by it, are still with the city, with Magalong remaining optimistic that the planned rehabilitation and improvement of Burnham Park, Mines View Park, and Wright Park can be tackled once the pandemic is dealt with.

And as COVID-19 incidence goes down and vaccination numbers go up in the city of Baguio, businesses that suffered severe losses begin to look to the future with a modicum of hope.

 Hindi natin masasabi kung paano na tayo next year, pero gumaganda naman ang sitwasyon. Sana naman, tuloy tuloy na tayo next year  (We cannot say how we’ll be next year, but the situation is getting better. Hopefully, it continues to next year),” Pacyaan says.