Philippines welcomes back foreign travelers after 2 years

Members of the Philippine Coast Guard assist passengers as they arrive at Manila’s International Airport, Philippines Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. The Philippines lifted a nearly 2-year ban on foreign travelers Thursday in a lifesaving boost for its tourism and related industries as an omicron-fueled surge eases. (AP Photo/Basilio Sepe)

By Associated Press

The Philippines lifted a nearly two-year ban on foreign travelers Thursday in a lifesaving boost for its tourism and related industries as an omicron-fueled surge eases. Foreign travelers from 157 countries with visa-free arrangements with the Philippines who have been fully vaccinated and tested negative for the virus will be welcomed back and will no longer be required to quarantine upon arrival. The government also ended a risk classification system that banned travelers from the worst-hit countries.

“We will begin the next chapter in the road to recovery,” Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat said. She added the border reopening would restore jobs and generate revenue across tourism-related enterprises and communities.

The Philippines imposed one of the world’s longest lockdowns and strictest police-enforced quarantine restrictions to quell a pandemic that caused its worst economic recession since the 1940s and pushed unemployment and hunger to record levels.

More than a million Filipinos lost their jobs in tourism businesses and destinations in the first year of the pandemic alone, according to government statistics. Tourism destinations, including popular beach and tropical island resorts, resembled ghost towns at the height of pandemic lockdowns, and a volcanic eruption and typhoons exacerbated losses.

The reopening had been set for Dec. 1 but was postponed as the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus spread.

Less than a thousand new cases were added daily during the Christmas holidays, when large crowds of shoppers trooped back to malls and restaurants despite constant government warnings. The subsequent surge peaked above 39,000 infections in a day in mid-January, but has since eased. Health officials reported about 3,600 infections on Wednesday with 69 deaths and have declared the entire archipelago, except for one southern region, at “low to moderate risk.”

More than 60 million of nearly 110 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus and 8.2 million have received their booster shots in a campaign that has been hampered by vaccine shortages and public hesitancy.

President Rodrigo Duterte warned Filipinos in televised remarks Monday that “we are not over the hump” and urged the unvaccinated to get immunized soon.

“If you’re unvaccinated and you die, well, I’ll tell you, ‘good riddance,’” the tough-talking president said. “You can walk around and if you get contaminated, you will be awfully very, very sorry for yourself and your family.”