Ms. Maria Anthonette C. Velasco Allones

Ms. Maria Anthonette C. Velasco Allones, who joined the Former COO of Tourism Promotions Board Philippines (TPB) on 31 January 2020 talks about her responsibilities. 

Readers of Travel And Tour World comes to know how under her leadership TPB will promote the Philippines as one of the most preferred destinations in the Asia-Pacific by 2022.

Travel And Tour World: Two years have passed by since the pandemic has taken a massive toll on the travel and tourism industry. But even then the Philippines hail as the latest Southeast Asian country to revive its battered tourism. How does it feel?

Maria Anthonette C. Velasco-Allones: The Covid-19 pandemic took the whole world aback and there was no rulebook as to how a country or industry should properly deal with it. I think it’s fair to say that the tourism industry of the entire world took a battering, from contributing 10.3% to global GDP in 2019 to only 5.3% in 2020 due to travel restrictions according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

Things took a turn in 2021 when destinations started to reopen gradually especially to local tourists. But reviving Philippine tourism has been a collective effort.

The national and local government units worked hand-in-hand together with private sectors and tourism stakeholders to ensure the readiness of reopening tourism destinations which includes the streamlining of health and safety protocols, re-training or capacitating tourism workers, and developing or improving products that should meet the expectations of the current tourist mindset.

The Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) Philippines, which is the marketing and promotions arm of the DOT, also strengthened its domestic tourism campaign by implementing fun yet safe initiatives to restore travel confidence such as the “Online Travel Bingo Challenge” that allowed winners to take a trip to a featured tourist destination and creating programs that highlight Philippine culture such as the Habi, Hilot / Hilom and Halal program that put a spotlight on the artistry of Philippine weavers, health and wellness as a response to the pandemic stress, and Muslim-friendly tourism through Halal food.

Our combined efforts saw a 38.16% growth in domestic trips in 2021 compared with 2020. The return of domestic tourism in 2021 also employed about 4.9 million individuals, which is 4.6 percent higher than 2020 numbers.

On February 10, 2022, we reopened to international tourists, and as of April this year, we have breached the 200k mark in foreign tourist arrivals. The future is promising indeed and we are just getting started!

 

Travel And Tour World: Do you have any other idea to beef up the country’s tourism scene?

Maria Anthonette C. Velasco-Allones: Though Philippine tourism reopened to international tourists just February of this year, the truth is, we have been preparing for this since the lockdown started. We knew that we eventually have to reopen and the only question is when.

So, all our efforts in the past two years have been focused on ensuring that the Philippines remain a top-of-mind destination. For instance, the TPB carried on with its institutional events such as the Philippine Travel Exchange (PHITEX) and MICE – Meetings, Incentive Travel, Conventions and Exhibitions – Conference (MICECON).

We also launched virtual destination videos, the Travel Philippines mobile application, and 360 Virtual Reality tours. And we continued to participate in international travel trade events, albeit virtually most of the time.

All of these efforts paid off because of our high foreign arrivals so far. But the icing on the cake was our hosting of the WTTC Global Summit in April of this year, which proved that the Philippines is ready to host big events once again and welcome tourists from all the over world.

Moving forward, as the world reopens we will continue to actively participate in travel trade shows especially now that onsite participation is possible. We will also continue to build up on SmarTourism in response to the massive shift in digitalization especially in our industry by improving and expanding the Travel Philippines mobile app and aggressively promoting in digital spaces and social media platforms.

We also hope that international tourist entry will be made less stringent because at the moment, fully vaccinated foreign tourists with no booster shots are still required to present a negative RT-PCR or antigen test result, which can put a burden on the tourist when entering the country. But other nations, like the United Kingdom, Norway, Turkey, and Germany among many others, have removed this rule and are even accepting vaccine free-tourists, so a step forward towards pre-pandemic life is essential given the developments.

 

Travel And Tour World: Does the aviation sector have any specific plan to contribute to the country’s travel sector? Please share in details if there is any change in the tourist traffic at the domestic and international levels before and after the pandemic?

 

Maria Anthonette C. Velasco-Allones: Our domestic carriers definitely played a big role in the increase in domestic numbers from 26,982,233 trips in 2020 to 37,279,282 trips in 2021 with seat sales, discounted fares, joint promotions with other brands or travel agencies, and aggressive online promotions on destinations.

 

Travel And Tour World: The Philippines has always been one of the most sought-after tourist destinations for travelers across the world. In that regard, what are your most recommended tourist attractions?

Maria Anthonette C. Velasco-Allones: Our islands like Boracay, Palawan, and Cebu have received international recognition. But aside from the beautiful beaches, recommendations should also be based on a destination having the infrastructure and facilities to accommodate the needs of a tourist.

I’d say destinations like Ilocos Norte, the Bicol Region including Catanduanes, Iloilo, Dumaguete, Siquijor, Camiguin, Davao, Zamboanga, and Siargao are very accessible, especially by air. But there are also other must-see places that can be reached by land – for instance, the Cordillera Regions if one wants to see the iconic rice terraces, South Cotabato for the cultural villages and the Dreamweavers, and Samar for outdoor adventures.

We have 7,641 islands, and there’s always something for everyone. Visit them all!

 

Travel And Tour World: What are your plans to reinstate Sustainable Tourism in the Philippines in the coming years?

Maria Anthonette C. Velasco-Allones: Currently, the TPB has a program that anchors on responsible, ethical, and sustainable tourism called “Sustainable Community Based Tourism” or SCBT. We work with the DOT and other tourism stakeholders to properly evaluate Philippine destinations and see their potential to become a sustainable one based on certain indicators that focus on community preparedness, product development, organizational set-up, feasibility, among many others. The destinations should offer a unique local experience, value environmental conservation, and promote cultural heritage and ecological balance.

One example that TPB has been providing support to is the Bojo River Cruise in Aloguinsan, Cebu which has won many awards, including the most recent one – being recognized as one of the “Best Tourism Villages” at the 24th United Nations World Tourism Organization’s General Assembly.

During the 10th Eco Forum in February of 2020, we also recognized sustainable sites and programs such as the Talaandig Tribe Sustainable Community in Bukidnon, the Eco- Cultural Tour Program of Sagay Negros Occidental, Buhatan River Cruise in Buhatan Sorsogon and the Community Immersion Program of Kiangan Ifugao.

We work with our media partners to market and promote these sites to ensure inclusive growth and expand economic opportunities. We also believe that through this program, other tourism sites, most especially the budding ones, will be inspired to follow the sustainable route.

 

Travel And Tour World: How has COVID-19 impacted the Philippines incentive industry? What protocols and technological updates have you implemented to ensure safe events?

Maria Anthonette C. Velasco-Allones: At the TPB, we have a MICE (Meetings, Incentive Travel, Conventions and Exhibitions) Department that assists in organizing events by providing free information, guidance, and technical assistance, from site inspection to organizing tours.

In 2019, we were able to assist a total of 155 events, but when the pandemic happened, the numbers went down to 43 in 2020, marking a 72.26% decrease in events assisted. Most of our events were also held online, including one of our institutional events – the MICECON (MICE Conference), which transitioned online to become MICECONline 2020.

In 2021, given the gradual easing of restrictions, we switched from pure virtual to hybrid in mounting events. At this point, we released health and safety protocols for MICE organizers and venues and facilities that included filling out health declaration forms, body temperature screening, regular sanitation and disinfection of venues and facilities, limiting venue capacity, providing PPE (personal protective equipment) to suppliers, imposing strict measurements when setting up booths to allow physical distancing, and even providing pre-packed meals and drinks as buffet set-up was not possible at the time.

We then organized the first Tourism & Technology Forum (TTF) during the first quarter of the year; a 2-day hybrid event held onsite and broadcasted live online simultaneously. Our annual institutional MICECON event also became MICE Connect 2021, a hybrid event held in Boracay Island that gathered 52 online sellers and 48 buyers, of which 23 were onsite.

Things got even better in 2022 when most of the world finally reopened. Though the pandemic’s impact is different as it was in 2020, we continue to impose health and safety measures to mitigate the spread of the virus as evident during our hosting of the WTTC.

Global Summit – the first biggest international MICE event of the year. And so far, as of July 22, the TPB already assisted 27 MICE events, marking an 8% increase from last year’s numbers, and we have yet to finish the year and stage our next biggest event which is MICECon ‘22 to be held in Davao City! So we are definitely bouncing back.

 

Travel And Tour World: Where do you wish to see the Philippines’ travel industry in the next five years?

Maria Anthonette C. Velasco-Allones: Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Tourism Development Plan (NTPD) had to be reformulated so the industry could bounce back stronger given the crisis. From the previous strategy that focused on developing “a globally competitive, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible tourism industry that promotes inclusive growth through employment generation and equitable distribution of income thereby contributing to building a foundation for a high-trust society”, the current NTDP Strategic direction is now about:

 

  1. Promoting Safe, Fun, and Competitive Tourism;
  2. Pursuing sustainable, inclusive, and resilient tourism; and
  3. Strengthening governance and destination management

 

As the marketing and promotions arm of the DOT, TPB’s programs will be anchored on this direction as we continue to:

 

  • Digitalize / leverage on smart technology – continuous expansion of the Travel Philippines app; expanding our digital presence; conducting hybrid events and digital-based joint promotions; digital / online consumer awareness activations
  • Create online content, especially personalized content / good story-telling; this will also involve collaboration with influencers
  • Market and promote SCBT sites
  • Implement current banner projects
  • Promote new tourism circuits

 

For MICE, we will be implementing a program called “Philippine MICE Cities” that would empower local government units of MICE destinations in the country to create their own programs to develop the MICE / business industry and encourage the mounting of local MICE events and eventually, international MICE events, in their respective areas. We will be starting in the City of Cagayan De Oro in Mindanao in September.

What we’ve learned during the pandemic is that collaboration is the key. Thus, in the next five years, the aforementioned direction and programs will continue to involve the participation not only of the National and Local Government Units but also the tourism stakeholders and the private sectors to ensure inclusivity and sustainability.

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