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While the Philippines hoped for a recovery in tourism as it reopened its Boracay resort in October after months of lockdown due to the coronavirus, some business owners on the small island known for its white beaches have doubts if tourists will return quickly enough.

Some doubt they will be able to make up for lost revenues given that the country is in the last quarter of the year, considered leisure-unfriendly “typhoon months.”

One of them is Jiro Asanuma, the only Japanese entrepreneur who remained on the central Philippines island through the lockdown.

For the 48-year-old, the Boracay’s reopening to tourists from across the country offered a ray of hope, but he is afraid that things will never be the same amid the pandemic.

He owns Nagisa, a coffee shop-cum-restaurant that has remained open since the global health crisis hit the country in February.

Many businesses on the island opted to close, as they couldn’t wait out the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, an average of 165,000 people visited the island every month, according to a local tourism office. But in March, arrivals dramatically dwindled amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus.

“Before, there were two or three Japanese restaurants around the area, but when the crisis came, they all ceased because they needed to pay all the leasing fees,” Asanuma said.

“I’m the only surviving Japanese restaurant … I just keep myself standing and surviving with the situation like this now,” he added.

When the threat of COVID-19 emerged, the local government directed all restaurants in Boracay to close and implement a “no dine-in policy.” But dining businesses were allowed to continue operating if they were able to supply water.

During the lockdown, Asanuma temporarily converted his restaurant into a water supplier and offered takeout food to clients.

Between March and early December, the resort island has recorded no virus cases, even after visitors began returning from October, however slowly. But the total number of virus cases in the country is still growing, with more than 430,000 reported as of early December.

The steady increase in cases nationwide has not been encouraging to some entrepreneurs who would otherwise be looking to invest in the island.

Authorities require would-be visitors to show they have tested negative for COVID-19, a rule entrepreneurs say could discourage tourists from visiting the idyllic island because of the hassle it brings.

Asanuma said many businesses have been affected by a lack of tourists, adding that the dearth has meant little to no income for them.

“I only have a break-even income, so it’s almost negative every month,” Asanuma explained, citing obligations he needs to settle every month, such as space leasing, electricity, water and other services.

Boracay, a resort island in the Philippines, is famed for its white beaches. | KYODO
Boracay, a resort island in the Philippines, is famed for its white beaches. | KYODO

Eighteen years ago, Asanuma visited Boracay with his mother to check out the island, which he had considered as “a kind of future retirement place.” But its natural beauty surprised him.

His original plan was to stay for only one year, but the stay got extended, and he has lived in the area ever since.

Drawing on his management skills, he opened his business and has made some profit. He also manages an inn behind the coffee shop.

But the pandemic led him to make some tough choices, including offering some of his workers early retirement, which he did so he could pay them properly.

Asanuma has reduced his staff from 45 to 22, most of them part-timers.

Even though the island has been reopened, he doesn’t anticipate an influx of tourists soon. “I think it’s difficult. Who wants to travel during this pandemic?” he said.

According to the local tourism office, 2,630 tourists visited Boracay over one month from its reopening on Oct. 1, a far cry from pre-pandemic numbers.

Asanuma said he has thought of staying in business for up to one year but has also thought of leaving Boracay as tourism may not pick up that fast, and things may get worse.

But he said he wouldn’t leave the Philippines as he has fallen in love with the people and the beaches.

Asanuma said he was looking into a new business venture in other places in the country. “We have to live with COVID-19,” he said.

Kenichi Sawamura, originally from Japan but a Boracay resident of almost 18 years, closed his diving store when President Rodrigo Duterte temporarily shut down the island in 2018 to clean up its beach.

The pandemic hit him hard. “Right now, no work. It’s hard but it’s not only for me,” the 42-year-old said.

Sawamura decided to return to Japan, leaving the Philippines in early December, but is confident he will return when the situation improves.

“I love the Philippines. I also like Filipino food,” he said.

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