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The Philippines government hopes a surge in tourists will save its economy


Tourism makes up a big chunk of the economy of the Philippines, which started bringing back foreign tourists this month. The country's most popular beach destination is hoping to become a model for safely reopening tourism spots amid the pandemic. As Ashley Westerman reports, locals hope a mix of vaccines and positive attitudes will help restore Boracay Island to its former glory.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: When you reach the jetty port in Caticlan to hop a ferry to Boracay Island, visitors are greeted by the typical local niceties.


WESTERMAN: Hello, ma'am. Welcome. Good day. And then there's this.


AUTOMATED VOICE: Normal temperature.

WESTERMAN: One of those little boxy, white digital thermometers takes everyone's temperature entering the port.


AUTOMATED VOICE: Normal temperature.

WESTERMAN: These devices are now just one of the many ways officials in the Philippines' most popular beach spot are trying to ensure everyone visiting their island paradise is healthy. The Philippines has experienced the worst pandemic recession in all of Southeast Asia. So when officials in late January announced that foreign tourists would be welcome back, they made it clear the move was about helping the country's hard-hit economy. Twelve percent of the Philippines' GDP every year comes from tourism. Soon after, Boracay started making vacationing here more palatable. Officials dropped the required COVID-19 PCR test for fully vaccinated individuals and allowed hotels to book more guests and restaurants to seat more people. And while visitors still have to fill out a health declaration, wear masks in public and social distance, officials here say it's time to reopen.

FROLIBAR BAUTISTA: Boracay is very dependent on tourists - meaning, no tourists, no income.

WESTERMAN: Frolibar Bautista is acting mayor of Malay, the town in which Boracay is part of. He says the last two years have been really hard on island residents. Pre-pandemic, Boracay's pristine white beaches and crystal blue-green water attracted over 2 million visitors in 2019. In 2020, that number dwindled to just over 16,000, mostly domestic travelers. Bautista says getting locals vaccinated has been the priority in preparing to reopen to international travelers.

BAUTISTA: A hundred percent of our tourism workers are already vaccinated. And the residents are almost 80% vaccinated.

WESTERMAN: Bautista says because of this, residents should have nothing to fear when it comes to welcoming back foreign tourists to Bautista. At White Beach, the island's main drag, vendors are honking everything from island-hopping tours and diving expeditions to henna tattoos and dinner.

MARK RAYMOND DE LEON: Hello (non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: Mark Raymond de Leon (ph) has been coordinating activities here for nearly 15 years. Before the pandemic, he was making nearly $1,000 a month. Since, that's dropped by more than half. De Leon says he's ready to serve international tours again. Though, he is a bit worried about coronavirus cases going up.

DE LEON: We need the tourists in the island. That's why we need to face it (laughter).

WESTERMAN: Nearby, Gladys Flucious (ph) says she's not worried about the virus because of Boracay's high vaccination rate.

So are you ready for international tourists?

GLADYS FLUCIOUS: Yes. We're so excited (laughter).

WESTERMAN: It's a glimmer of hope after enduring nearly two years of economic hardship.

For NPR news, I'm Ashley Westerman in Boracay, Philippines.

(SOUNDBITE OF STARS ON 33'S "SOMETHING YOU CAN FEEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.