Traveling to the Philippines during the pandemic

·5 min read
Tourists are seen at a resort in Batangas Province, the Philippines on Nov. 18, 2021. The Philippines will soon allow the entry of fully-vaccinated foreign tourists from China and over 40 other
FILE PHOTO: Tourists are seen at a resort in Batangas Province, the Philippines on Nov. 18, 2021. (Photo: Rouelle Umali/Xinhua via Getty Images)

By Annalisa Burgos

The holidays are a time of homecoming for many Filipino immigrants.

An estimated 12 million Filipinos live outside of their motherland for opportunities in other countries, whether it’s for temporary work or permanent settlement. December marks the return of thousands of Filipinos to their hometowns each year, but for the last two years, COVID-19-related restrictions and a burdensome 10-day or 14-day quarantine mandate kept many “balikbayan” away. Why spend more time and money alone in a hotel room than enjoying your vacation?

People relax along White Beach amid the coranavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Boracay Island, Aklan province, Philippines, December 1, 2021. Picture taken December 1, 2021. Picture taken with drone. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
FILE PHOTO: People relax along White Beach amid the coranavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Boracay Island, Aklan province, Philippines, December 1, 2021. Picture taken with drone. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

In November, the hotel quarantine was reduced to three days for vaccinated US travelers who tested negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of arrival. But a few weeks later, the discovery of the Omicron variant changed the rules yet again.

Now, most international arrivals must show negative PCR test results, quarantine in a government-approved facility for 5 days, take a PCR test on the 5th day, and show negative results to be released. Regardless of vaccination status, travelers must then quarantine at home for an additional 9 days.

Only 4,000 international travelers are allowed into the country each day, a cap that remained in place despite more availability of COVID vaccines and lower case counts. Bureau of Immigration (BI) Commissioner Jaime Morente said in a press statement the cap helped keep the volume of passengers during Christmas Eve and Christmas “manageable.”

A flight attendant wearing a mask for protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) performs a safety demonstration in a flight from Boracay, Aklan province, Philippines, December 2, 2021. Picture taken December 2, 2021. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
FILE PHOTO: A flight attendant wearing a mask for protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) performs a safety demonstration in a flight from Boracay, Aklan province, Philippines, December 2, 2021. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

According to the BI, only about 152,000 travelers arrived in the Philippines in December 2020, a fraction of the pre-pandemic figures of 1.7 million.

As a second generation Filipino American and dual citizen, I travel frequently to the Philippines and was among those who took advantage of the government’s loosened quarantine requirement for vaccinated US travelers.

As with any international travel during the pandemic, always research the latest protocols before you book a trip. Many countries require travelers from the Philippines to quarantine when they return, so plan for that. Here’s what the process was like for me flying on the flagship carrier Philippine Airlines, the only one with direct flights from Honolulu where I live.

All travelers are required to book a hotel for quarantine and register on the government’s One Health Pass website, where you enter your personal details, quarantine location, laboratory info for the post-arrival test, and vaccination status. After registering, you receive a confirmation email with a QR code. This system allows the Bureau of Quarantine and the Department of Transportation to track compliance.

Quarantine requirements depend on if the country is on the Red, Yellow or Green list. Travelers from Red List countries are banned from entering, regardless of vaccination status, unless they’re part of an official repatriation program. The US is on the Yellow list.

Currently, the only people who can travel to the Philippines are: Filipino nationals and their dependents, former Filipino nationals with an old passport or birth certificate, and foreign nationals with a valid visa.

Currently, the only people who can travel to the Philippines are: Filipino nationals and their dependents, former Filipino nationals with an old passport or birth certificate, and foreign nationals with a valid visa.

Philippine Airlines requires you to present all documentation before boarding, so plan ahead or you will not be allowed on the plane.

Upon landing at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, government authorities explain the verification process, which involves showing your One Health Pass QR code, passport, negative test results and vaccine card.

Trying to queue and stay 6 feet apart can be difficult and chaotic with so many passengers disembarking. I saw only two Coast Guard officers monitoring traffic in the queue. Expect to wait about 30 minutes to an hour, especially when only a few screeners are working.

Once your QR code is scanned and documents are verified, you proceed to immigration, then baggage pickup and finally customs. Note that many travelers are being repatriated as part of the Overseas Filpino Worker (OFW) program, which has its own lines and process. It can be confusing so make sure you’re not waiting in the wrong line.

You’re responsible for finding your own transportation to your quarantine hotel. I booked a quarantine room at the Manila Marriott Hotel and took a metered cab. At check-in, you’re asked to show your QR code. The lab you designated to do your post-arrival swab test on the One Health Pass website should contact you during your quarantine period. On the day of your test, the lab techs report to your room and do a PCR swab test. You receive your results via email the next day.

A man takes a selfie along Puka Beach amid the coranavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Boracay Island, Aklan province, Philippines, December 1, 2021. Picture taken December 1, 2021. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
FILE PHOTO: A man takes a selfie along Puka Beach amid the coranavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Boracay Island, Aklan province, Philippines, December 1, 2021. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

Once you’re released from the hotel, it’s not clear what government agency enforces the required home quarantine or catches violators. Many governments use an honor system, so it’s left up to the individual to follow protocols to ensure public health and safety.

As we see COVID case counts rise again with a new contagious variant and more people gathering during the holidays, it’s more important than ever to keep good hygiene, wear face masks and limit close contact with strangers, especially if you plan to travel.

Annalisa Burgos is a freelance journalist with 20 years of experience covering Asia and the United States. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @annalisaburgos and on Facebook: facebook.com/annalisaburgosnews. The views expressed are her own.

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