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The Philippines is lifting its ban on foreign tourists

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

After nearly two years, the Philippines says it will now open its borders to certain tourists, including Americans. The new travel policy was announced today, and as Ashley Westerman reports from Manila, immediate reaction has actually been a bit mixed.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Michael Andrew Click hasn't seen his girlfriend, Jude Loconilau, for over two years. She lives in the Philippines, and ever since the country's borders closed in March of 2020, Click says it's been frustrating and exhausting waiting for them to reopen. But when the Philippine government announced today that certain foreign tourists would be allowed to enter starting February 10, Click was actually very skeptical.

MICHAEL ANDREW CLICK: It's progress until the next variant comes out, right?

WESTERMAN: The new rules would allow foreigners from countries that the Philippines has visa agreements with, including the U.S., to enter the country. They'd only need proof of full vaccination and a negative PCR test before their flight.

But Click says this change is not in line with what the U.S. government is saying about international travel. So as much as he wants to see Jude, he still doesn't think it's safe to hop on a plane quite yet.

CLICK: I can't - in good conscience, I can't bring myself to travel internationally to go visit her and hug and kiss her and family and everything when so much is at risk.

WESTERMAN: The policy change doesn't just affect people coming here as tourists.

RICHARD HEYDARIAN: There are also many Filipinos overseas, including Filipino Americans, you know, who would love to come back to the country and visit their loved ones.

WESTERMAN: That's Manila-based political commentator Richard Heydarian. Over 4 million Filipinos live in the U.S., the largest diaspora of Filipinos in the world. The rules would also affect overseas Filipino workers, he says, thousands of whom may have put off coming home because...

HEYDARIAN: The quarantine requirements were just so strict that it dissuaded a lot of people.

WESTERMAN: The previous requirement forced people from certain countries to stay in a hotel for six nights, minimum, and then quarantine at home for another seven days. The new rules also get rid of the PCR test on the fifth day after arrival. The major change in travel restrictions comes just weeks after the omicron variant washed across the Philippines, sending daily COVID-19 case counts to pandemic highs.

Meanwhile, a little over half of the population is fully vaccinated. Still, Heydarian says the Philippines has had the worst pandemic recession in Southeast Asia, and now the government, just months before national elections in May, is looking to turn things around.

HEYDARIAN: I think the government really now is in the mood to fast-track the recovery. They want some good headlines before President Duterte steps down in June.

WESTERMAN: Restituto Padilla Jr. is a spokesman for the Inter-Agency Task Force, the group in charge of the Philippines pandemic response.

RESTITUTO PADILLA JR: Of course, this is all based on the needed balancing act between public health and opening up the economy and keeping jobs.

WESTERMAN: Some health care workers are already expressing skepticism, even going so far as to say the government is giving up on the fight against COVID-19.

For NPR news, I'm Ashley Westerman in Manila.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE COOK'S "OCEAN BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.