MANILA, Philippines — Requiring Americans to get a visa to visit the Philippines might hold back an entire tourist market and discourage potential investors from entering the country, a potentially high price to pay over an issue that only affects a few but powerful politicians in the Duterte administration.
While no official policy has been issued, local and foreign business groups are uneasy at the prospect of becoming possible collateral damage in the government’s knee-jerk response to a US ban on certain Filipino officials for alleged human rights violations.
President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered three American lawmakers barred from entering the Philippines after they sponsored a resolution to ban the entry to the United States of Filipino officials who had a hand in jailing opposition Sen. Leila de Lima.
Senators Edward Markey, Patrick Leahy and Richard Durbin, all Democrats, were supported by several other US senators from the Democratic and Republican parties.
Later, Durbin and Leahy were able to push a provision in the US 2020 budget law directing the secretary of state to ban Philippine officials involved in the “wrongful imprisonment” of De Lima from the United States.
The Duterte administration said the American legislators’ move was an affront to Philippine sovereignty. Duterte said that if the ban on Filipino officials were implemented, he would require American visitors to first obtain a visa.
Malacañang later clarified that US-based “balikbayan” will not be affected.
But even then, that policy would still impact on the number of American visitors, who account for the third largest group of foreign travelers in the Philippines.
Americans presently could visit and stay in the country for up to 30 days without a visa.
The American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (AmCham) said it preferred to maintain the status quo.
“AmCham would like to know more details about the proposed visa requirement,” said AmCham senior adviser John Forbes in a text message to the Inquirer.
“However,” he added, “we are in favor of seamless travel.”
Forbes noted that the Philippines granted visa-free entry to 157 nationalities, including Americans.
“AmCham hopes that will continue in the interest of tourism in the country,” he said.
Unlike the Philippines, the largest tourism markets in Southeast Asia provide electronic visa, or an e-visa, which is processed mostly online.
While AmCham declined to comment on the potential impact of the President’s directive, the World Economic Forum cited visa application and screening as one of the “pain points” in an international traveler’s journey.
Samie Lim, chair of the tourism committee of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said a potential investor starts off as a visitor.
“Before a person comes and invests in the country, he [or she] must like the country. It starts with being a tourist,” said Lim in a phone interview.
Around one-third of American tourists might be potential investors, and these tourists, unlike others, spend a lot whenever they visit the Philippines, he said.
Lim said requiring a visa would be a “hassle” — an inconvenience that some foreigners might not have the time, or even patience for.
3rd largest group
“I think it is foolish to be fighting off these investment opportunities when you’re tying to [attract] more investments,” he said. “We are not the only choice. There are so many other countries — Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. All the countries [in Southeast Asia] are trying to attract these tourists.”
In 2018, there were 7.1 million foreign tourists who traveled to the Philippines, an all-time high, according to the Department of Tourism, and the number could have gone higher were it not for the six-month closure of Boracay Island.
With 1.03 million tourists from the United States, the Americans were the third largest group of foreign visitors that year, behind 1.6 million South Koreans and 1.2 million Chinese.
From January to October 2019, more than 872,000 Americans visited the country visa-free, up 3 percent from the same 10-month period in 2018. They accounted for 12.8 percent of foreign tourists during those months.
The country’s 2018 visitors record, however, was not even close to those of other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), where the Philippines ranked sixth in foreign tourist arrivals, according to the AseanstatsDataPortal, which collates data from the regional bloc.
Thailand had over 38 million and Malaysia had 25 million in 2018. Vietnam, which ranked fifth, had over 15 million tourists, more than twice the Philippines.
The Philippines, however, was still the second top destination for American tourists that year next to Thailand, which attracted 1.12 million American visitors.
A lot has changed in the tourism market in nearly a decade. Back in 2010, Americans accounted for the second largest number of foreign visitors in the Philippines, trailing behind South Koreans, which has for years been the first.
Notably, there were only over 187,000 Chinese tourists back then compared to over 600,000 Americans. This was the case until 2016.
As the Duterte administration pivoted toward China, Chinese tourist arrivals spiked. Starting in 2017, the United States fell in the backseat and China took its place.
China managed to be the second top source of tourist arrivals despite being required to get a visa here in the Philippines.
But this may not be much of a consolation, as shown in the current controversies hounding the online gaming market, which hire mostly Chinese workers, many of whom arrive as tourists.
“The rich Chinese are not coming because of the [visa] requirement. It’s the people who have a lot of time, and not a lot of money [who travel to the country],” Lim said.
“We need people with a lot of money to come,” he said.
—With a report from Inquirer Research
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