LRay urges gov’t to scrap eTravel requirement

May 4, 2023 Ryan Ponce Pacpaco 308 views

Amid transition to ‘new normal’

A HOUSE leader has proposed to the government to get rid of its tedious eTravel requirement for incoming international travelers to spur the country’s full transition to the post-pandemic “new normal,” whereby enticing more tourists and prospective investors to come here and accelerating our economy’s rebound from COVID-19.

Even as he welcomed the increase in tourist arrivals in this year’s first quarter following the Marcos administration’s apt relaxation in late 2022 of anti-Covid health protocols, Camarines Sur Representative LRay Villafuerte said he expects the Department of Tourism (DOT) to entice even more visitors to come here “if we were to get rid of the tedious task of filling up the eTravel document that every inbound traveler, whether foreigner or Filipino, is required to present before boarding his or her flight bound for the Philippines.”

“A lot more people can be enticed to go to the Philippines, whether for pleasure or business if we were to get rid of the E-Travel document that is so tedious and time-consuming for inbound passengers to accomplish prior to their actual arrival here – and that is one remaining vestige of the stringent health protocols that were enforced across the globe at the height of the pandemic to curb the spread of the lethal coronavirus,” Villafuerte, National Unity Party (NUP) president, said.

As ordered by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), all incoming travelers are mandated to indicate in their respective eTravel papers that they had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or, if not, to present the results of antigen tests taken within three days of their flights certifying that they are negative of the coronavirus.

Inbound passengers who cannot present either will be required to take RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) tests upon their arrival in a Philippine airport and, if found Covid-positive, will be required to stay in a local quarantine facility for seven to ten days, depending on whether the infected travelers are fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated or un-vaccinated.

“Despite an uptick lately in cases of the new COVID-19 variant, health officials do not seem worried enough about a potentially alarming surge as to recommend the return of the masking mandate,” he said. “Hence, I believe a logical step further for Malacañang’s policy of increasingly relaxing anti-Covid health protocols and reopening our economy to global business and travel is the ditching of the eTravel document as a border entry prerequisite for international travelers.”

Department of Health (DOH) Officer-in-Charge (OIC) Maria Rosario Vergeire has said that despite the increase lately in COVID-19 infections and the presence of highly transmissible variants, the DOH and other IATF member agencies had recommended to President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. not to reimpose restrictions like the mask mandate, and just limit masking to high-risk groups like senior citizens, immunocompromised people and those with comorbidities.

The daily average of coronavirus infections reportedly rose by 42% to 637 as the number of cases totaled 4,456 over the April 24-30 period.

“If countries like the US (United States) and Canada, which had similarly experienced Covid outbreak surges like the Philippines in the past, and which both have a far greater volume of inbound travelers than us, can lift their last remaining pandemic travel restrictions, why can’t we?” he stressed.

Villafuerte issued this statement as the US is poised to junk a requirement for international air travelers to show proof of their Covid immunization before they can enter any American state, beginning on May 11, when Washington is also lifting the country’s coronavirus public health emergency.

Canada removed its COVID-19 vaccine requirement for international air passengers in 2022 yet.

Villafuerte pointed out that the US Supreme Court earlier reversed a lower court ruling allowing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to require large businesses with 100 employees or more to require their workers to get anti-Covid shots or go through regular testing for the coronavirus and wear face masks at work.

As ordered by the IATF, eTravel had replaced the One Health Pass and e-Arrival Card as a travel requirement for incoming international passengers as part of the government’s health protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, ostensibly to make it easier for travelers to enter the Philippines.

“However, eTravel has not delivered smooth passage as promised, and incoming passengers now have to go through the same arduous task of filling up this supposedly better travel document as what had been experienced and griped about by air travelers with the ditched One Health Pass and e-Arrival Card,” he said.

Under the eTravel setup, inbound travelers are to register on its official website within 72 hours prior to their actual flights to the Philippines and are mandated to present proof of their valid eTravel registration – either through printed copies or screenshots on their smartphones – prior to flight boarding at airports.

As per the IATF’s entry, quarantine, and testing requirements, inbound travelers must have received the second dose of a two-dose series vaccine or a single-vaccine shot at least 14 days prior to their departure from their countries of origin.

Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated passengers must present negative results of Rapid Antigen Tests taken 24 hours before departure from their countries of origin in a continuous trip to the Philippines, excluding layovers.

Travelers who test positive in antigen tests taken upon their arrival at a Philippine airport shall go through whatever the current quarantine and isolation protocols of the Department of Health (DOH).

The ePass, which can be accessed for free via its official website, requires inbound travelers to answer questions based on IATF requirements, including age, traveler classification, and itinerary in the Philippines, for the information of health border authorities upon arrival at airports.

Incoming passengers who submit all required information and attachments in compliance with IATF protocols are issued green-colored QR codes, while those with missing requirements are issued red-colored QR codes.

Those with red-colored QR codes are interviewed upon their airport arrival by Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) personnel to manually verify and assess if they need to first go through RT-PCR testing and facility-based quarantine – 7 days for fully vaccinated passengers and ten days for partially or unvaccinated ones.

In keeping with the “Data Privacy Act” (Republic Act or RA 10173), all sensitive personal information is immediately deleted from the eTravel database after inbound passengers are completely processed, which means the eTravel QR codes are issued per transaction, and passengers thus have to register for every travel to the Philippines.

Passengers found positive for COVID-19 will not be allowed to check out of their hotels serving as their quarantine facilities unless they are able to show valid BOQ-issued quarantine certificates.

Last year, Villafuerte commended President Marcos for taking the “audacious step” of lifting the mandatory masking policy in outdoor and indoor settings and relaxing travel restriction protocols, which, the congressman said, would speed up the country’s post-pandemic recovery and show to the world that the Philippines has reopened for both business and leisure travel.

The President had approved the IATF’s recommendation last October on relaxing Covid-19 health protocols, shortly after Villafuerte had proposed that the government lift the mandatory use of face masks and ease travel restrictions that apparently discourage tourists from visiting the Philippines.

Then-President Duterte’s thrice-extended “State of Calamity” over COVID-19 expired in September 2022, and President Marcos issued Proclamation No. 57, stretching this emergency period until end-December 2022.

Villafuerte said that one positive result of President Marcos’ series of bold decisions in late 2022 to relax COVID-19 health protocols was the jump in foreign tourist arrivals to 1.465 million over the Jan. 1-April 5 period, prompting the DOT to project the number of tourists to hit 4.8 million this year, or nearly double 2022’s 2.5 million.

The NUP president is optimistic that the country’s tourist arrivals could hit pre-pandemic levels at a faster pace if eTravel is taken out as a requirement for inbound travelers.

“Such a move would boost the tourism sector, which will soften the impact on the domestic economy of weakening export growth in the face of a global economic slowdown,” Villafuerte said.

Villafuerte said the full recovery of the tourism sector is urgent, considering that President Marcos himself, in an Oct. 17 speech during the Philippine Tourism Industry Convergence Reception (PTICR) at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City, cited this industry as among the country’s high potential drivers for economic transformation.

The Chief Executive issued Executive Order (EO) 7 last Oct. 28, making the wearing of face masks optional in both indoor and outdoor settings, just days after Mr. Marcos approved the IATF recommendation on mandatory masking that was enforced nationwide since March 2020.

Earlier on Sept. 12, the President issued EO 3 on the voluntary use of masks outdoors.

Following the issuance of EO 3 and EO 7, Villafuerte said: “The relaxation of the mandatory mask policy even in indoor settings and the lifting of the anti-Covid vaccination and RT-PCR testing protocols for inbound international travelers best underscore President Marcos’ message to the world that we are back after going through the pandemic’s wringer, that we have started to normalize the coronavirus situation, and that it’s time for us to put the economy back on its high growth path before the pandemic hit us almost three years ago.”

“The President’s issuance of EO 7 would attract more tourists and boost Philippine tourism, which is integral to the country’s quick and robust recovery from the global economic and health crises wrought by the once-in-a-century pandemic,” he said.

Villafuerte added, “Rather than just playing catch-up to its Asian peers whose respective tourism industries have already started on strong-recovery mode, the Philippines, with its far better tourist attractions than those of its neighbors, could actually overtake its direct competitors in the region by doing away with its stringent travel curbs that have impelled most tourists to instead visit – and spend their money in – countries that have relaxed, if not jettisoned altogether, their Covid-related health and border entry protocols.”

“Our quick and strong rebound from the nearly three-year pandemic, which is contingent in part on the full recovery of our tourism sector and the dramatic increase in tourist arrivals, will probably remain elusive for so long as the Philippines is stuck on the list of countries with tough entry restrictions for travelers,” he said.