MANILA - More than 20,000 tourists have visited the Philippines since the country reopened its borders 11 days ago, the Tourism Ministry reported on Monday (Feb 21).
This comes as mayors of the country's sprawling capital are set to meet on Tuesday to consider downshifting to a "new normal" that involves the most relaxed restrictions ever since the Covid-19 pandemic began more than two years ago.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Puyat said in a radio interview that 21,974 tourists have visited the Philippines since Feb 10, and that she is expecting even more to arrive in the coming months.
Most came from the United States, Canada, Britain and South Korea. There were also tourists from Australia, Vietnam and Japan.
"I was pleasantly surprised to find out that many were already arriving here on the day we reopened our borders on Feb 10," she said.
Since Feb 10, the government has been allowing all fully vaccinated tourists to enter the Philippines without having to quarantine for a week. They are, however, required to get a negative Covid-19 test result prior to their arrival.
The move came as a massive outbreak, fuelled by the extremely infectious Omicron variant, began to quickly recede.
New cases have plunged in recent weeks from a high of more than 40,000 in January to fewer than 2,000 on Sunday, and as the government ramps up its vaccination drive. Close to 70 per cent of some 110 million Filipinos are already fully vaccinated.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said on Saturday that the Philippines was through the worst of the Omicron variant, and that Filipinos would soon "have to move on and live with the virus".
Dr Rontgene Solante, an infectious disease expert with the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, said recent data showed that quarantine curbs could be eased next month.
"I think the trend is really improving, especially with the daily cases that we have, and I think it's a good time to really downgrade the alert level," he said.
Mayors of Metro Manila, which spans 16 cities, are expected to recommend bringing down the alert level from 2 to 1, as infections fall to fewer than 500 cases a day and with more than 80 per cent of Metro Manila's 13 million inhabitants fully vaccinated.
Under alert level 1, most companies will be allowed to operate at full capacity, including restaurants, cafes, bars, hotels, salons and other service firms.
Churches will also be allowed to fill up their pews, and thousands of schools can resume in-person classes.
Offices may start to see their employees return after two years of working from home.
But masks will stay on, and be the last to go.
Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega, who oversees hospitals' responses to Covid-19 outbreaks, said: "While almost everything is normal, that doesn't mean the virus is gone.
"If we downgrade to alert level 1, we must have flexible plans in case we return to alert level 2."