MANILA: The Philippines welcomed back more than 200 foreign tourists on Thursday (Feb 10), becoming the latest Southeast Asian nation to reopen in a bid to revive a battered tourism sector after its borders shut to visitors nearly two years ago due to the pandemic.
Popular for its white sand beaches and rich marine life, the Philippines has seen a sharp drop in coronavirus cases.
Tourism officials at Manila's airport greeted passengers flying in from countries including the United States and China to visit beaches or reunite with family and friends.
"I think it will be a good boost for tourism and the Filipino economy," said Shawn James Stickney, 31, a Malaysian social media influencer living in Australia who flew in to surprise his girlfriend.
At the Walled City of Intramuros in Manila, horse carriage drivers and bike rental operators were preparing for what they hoped would be a steady flow of vacationers to revive their incomes.
"Half of our guests are foreigners who are on vacation here so we are very happy to know that our country is finally open to foreign tourists," said Russel Leyco, a bike rental manager.
New coronavirus cases in the Philippines have fallen from a September peak of more than 33,000 to just over 3,500 a day, while more than half of the country's 110 million people have now been fully vaccinated.
Tourists need to show proof of vaccination but do not need to quarantine and travel companies hope the trickle of arrivals will turn into a flood to give the sector a lift.
"We hope that these numbers continue to increase in the days, weeks and months ahead," said Jose Clemente, head of a tourism industry group.
The Philippines had 8.26 million visitors in 2019, but that fell 82 per cent in 2020 when borders shut.