The local media has constantly brought to the notice of the general public the difficulties faced by OFWs and other Boholanos stranded elsewhere within the Philippines throughthe enforcement of the various Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) Executive Orders
Little comment however appears to have surfaced concerning the massive efforts that have had to be made by the Department of Tourism, Region 7 (DOT7), the Bohol Tourism Office (BTO) and Municipal Tourism Offices to repatriate stranded foreigners who were still staying in Bohol as tourists when the ECQ lock-down was initially enforced on 16 March 2020.
As a foreigner myself I therefore want to put in a very big THANK YOU on their behalf. As you will see from what I have written below, thetask of this ‘Bohol team’ was not easy, yet by 22 April, they had successfully assisted with the repatriation of 946 foreign nationals!! Wow, well done!
Like for so many other issues, no-one really realized the ‘extra’ problems that would come with ECQ enforcement. In actual fact, the plight of stranded expatriates truthfully really exploded on to the unsuspecting Bohol team after the first initial ECQ days. Most of those stranded were here just for a holiday, and many of them were trying to minimize cellphonecontact with home and the outside world at the time!
So when the ECQ hit, it came like a bolt out of the blue to many and subsequently resulted in hundreds of them being too late to join the thousands already changing their flights and getting on the last fast-ferries and planes out. Airline phone lines and websites were of course jammed as a consequence, and many of those stranded became really quite desperate.
Fortunately for all, DOT7, BTO and Municipal Tourism Officers were still at work, albeit with many working from home. Although there were no recognized procedures for this emergency in place, tourist accommodation staff and other residents ‘in the know’ soon got the message across to LGUs that embarrassing numbers of guests were stranded,
As a consequence anew process started up of Municipal LGUs and BTO officials getting all their details, tracking their actual locations and arranging for them somehow to get valid medical certificates to travel. Then it fell to DOT7 to arrange for ferries to take them out to Cebu. This was of course no easy matter. RoRo ferries were still running but only carrying freight and not passengers. Philippine Coast Guard and Port Officials had orders not to allow anyone in or out which they enforced rigidly.
In the end though compromises were made, reality prevailed, and repatriation efforts began.Somehow BTO and DOT7 managed to set up a procedure where catamaran RoRoferries in Tubigon operated to carry BTO vetted foreigners to the Port of Cebu from where buses, again arranged by DOT7, took them direct to Cebu’s Mactan International Airport to catch flights bound for NAIA Manila where they caught international flights.
No matter what nationality you hold, your own government always advises you when abroad in cases of emergencyto contact its Embassy or Consulate within the country you are visiting. And so of course this was what all the stranded foreigners did!
Again though, phonelines became jammed, websites crashed and emails and social media messages poured in, many remaining unanswered. Unlike essential Philippines government staff, in the first few days of the ECQ virtually all foreign Embassy / Consulate staff were already ‘working from home’ and away from their essential desktop computer databases and programs!The situation of course varied from Embassy to Embassy, but those caught without the necessary contingency plans soon were listed as incompetent or uncaring by disgruntled stranded tourists, and a sort of league table setting out the best and worst Embassies circulated through social media.
As the weeks went on under ECQ, most scheduled international flights from NAIA were cancelled yet the lists of stranded tourists grew longer and longer as more surfaced everyday!So it was here that many Embassies began to somewhat redeem themselves.
Those with the greatest numbers of stranded nationals began arranging sweeper flights to go around provincial airports picking up individuals listed and cleared by DOT7. However, only those booked on the few remaining scheduled international flights or the flights chartered by the Embassies themselves were collected and dispatched and so many were left behind! Anyway, this process is continuing right up to this day! Would you believe it, as of 22 April 2020, BTO listed 323 foreigners still stranded here??
In closing I want also to thank those much-maligned Embassy staff!If the truth were known, most Embassies have very few consular staff to handle the problems of visiting nations even at the best of times. Keep safe everyone and realistically updated every day!