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Love is not tourism: Binational couples long to reunite

October 25, 2020 - Sunday 3:10 PM by PNA

Article Banner Image BINATIONAL COUPLES. Before the pandemic, Neljane (left), who lives in Cebu City, and Bradley, (right) who lives in Edmonton City in Alberta, Canada, spent their vacation in Coron, Palawan. Neljane and Bradley are among the many binational couples longing to reunite once non-essential travel restrictions are relaxed. (Photo courtesy of Neljane)

MANILA – Long-distance binational couples have been lobbying using the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism on social media for governments to allow them to reunite after months of being separated due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.

The Philippines recently lifted the ban on non-essential outbound travel, which means Filipinos can leave the country to see their foreign partners abroad. But how much longer is it going to take until the ban on inbound travel is lifted as well?

Some Filipinos have started sending their visa applications or booking tickets to meet their partners abroad, while others are simply waiting for the inbound restrictions to be eased.

Below, some Filipinas share their plans of reuniting with their foreign partners in time for the holidays.

Cebu-based Bigs and her partner Mátyás, who works in Germany, have been together for nearly three years but haven’t seen each since February. The original plan was for Mátyás to spend the holidays with her family, but unless inbound travel restrictions are eased, she might have to book tickets to Germany instead.

“Yes, we have agreed that he will spend Christmas and New Year’s here with me in Cebu. [But] if the government won’t open the border in December, I’m planning to go to him to Germany. We both prefer if he comes here though,” she told the Philippine News Agency (PNA) in an interview.

Jessa and her partner UK-based Philip matched on a dating site and have been together for seven months. They were planning to finally meet in person last September, but his trip got canceled. He booked another ticket for December with the hope that there won’t be any cancellation the second time around.

“If the country doesn’t open until the third week of November, then we will have to take the risk,” she said, despite knowing it would be easier for Philip to visit the Philippines had inbound travel been less restrictive.

Like the Philippines, Malaysia only currently allows essential travel which is why Em and her Malaysian partner Tim are planning to reunite in the same country where they first met.

“If the [government] doesn't allow inbound travel soon, then we will meet in Dubai in December,” Em said. She and her partner met in an international food exhibition in Dubai some three years ago.

Christy, who lives in Cagayan de Oro, is also hoping to get her visa approved to see her French partner Guillaume.

“It’s not easy to enter Europe. I need to process a tourist visa. If I get a visa, it would be the best gift to both of us,” she said.

‘LDR blues’

For Hazel of Rizal, poor internet services and the different time zones make it harder for her and her partner, England-based David to communicate with each other.

“We spend a lot of time on video call conversations saying ‘Can you hear me now?’. There is also a seven-hour time difference. It’s hard not being with the one you love and not to be able to hold them when you want to,” she said.

On the other hand, Neljane of Cebu said not being able to be there for each other when they’re desperately needed, when words are not enough to make things better, are the downsides of being in a long-distance relationship (LDR) with her Canadian boyfriend Bradley.

“The hardest part is you not being able to take care of him during the times he needs it the most,” she said.

Being apart from each other for so long can impact one’s mental and physical health. Both Bigs and Jessa admitted to feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed not knowing when they can see their partners again.

“It is taking a heavy toll on my health -- body and mind. I have been diagnosed with myoma. I have [also] been diagnosed with chronic migraine which I have been getting more often now. If I can’t manage it, I can have dementia. I am used to stress because of my job, but I am hanging by the thread at the moment. I can hardly focus on my work and personal life at home,” Bigs said.

When distance becomes too hard to bear, couples could even grow apart from each other in ways that a round-trip ticket just won’t fix.

“Many couples break up because they cannot live like this. They can’t wait anymore, the distance is killing us. It hurts not being with our loved ones,” Jessa said.

‘Viral movement’

A petition accounting to over 10,000 signatures is making rounds online, urging Filipino officials to make exemptions. (Screenshot from change.org)

When binational couples started to feel the effects of LDR, made worse knowing that travel restriction makes it impossible for them to reunite sooner, the campaign #LoveIsNotTourism took off on a global scale.

One Filipino group on Facebook dedicated solely for the movement is also nearing 2,000 in membership, just three months since its creation last August.

Ilene Kaye Patanindagat, one of the moderators of Love Is Not Tourism-Philippines group, said they do understand where the government is coming from and that the restrictions are there to ensure the safety of everyone. But they hope exemptions could be made and that partners could be considered as family too.

“We are not asking to open them (to reopen) tourism, we are only asking for exemptions and recognize them as family,” she said.

Most of the group’s members are couples about to get married but weren’t able to push through since fiancé's cannot enter the country, but there are also balikbayans who have a sick or deceased relative in the Philippines or pregnant mothers about to give birth or already gave birth and want their partners to be on their side.

“It's been eight months that we've been waiting to lift the travel ban, however, as of now, we don't know when it will be lifted and it's affecting our mental health already. A lot of us are suffering from emotional, psychological, and physical toll by being apart from our partners,” she said.

“Perhaps, what's harder than going through a crisis without your loved one by your side is not knowing when you’re going to see them again,” she added.

Ilene said love should not be regarded as “non-essential” and hoped that the government would soon develop guidelines for safe inbound travel.

While Filipinos can now leave the country, Ilene said not everyone has the money to book a flight and leave the Philippines.

Ilene’s partner for two years Benjamin Covert is currently in the United States. Prior to the pandemic, he was scheduled to visit her this coming November, since as a sailor, the latter part of the year is the only time he’s allowed to go on a vacation. 

“I'm hoping that soon the Government will give exemptions for the Love is Not Tourism community,” she said. 

“As much as we want to meet in another country, it would be costly for both of us since most states that are open for tourists require days into quarantine and the flights are too expensive. That's why we are asking for exemptions as not all Filipinos and Filipinas have the capacity to go abroad,” she added.

In an informal poll conducted within their group, Ilene said some 324 foreign partners were supposed to be in the Philippines for the next eight months.

“Being away with your loved ones in this time of pandemic is depressing and all we want is to be with them and take care of each other,” Ilene said.

‘Wishing, waiting’

Wanting to take it one step at a time, Ilene said her only hope now is for the ban’s partial lifting before 2021.

“If the country will not open yet by that time, our chance to meet again is November next year or worse, longer than that, and that's too long for us already to meet again,” she said.

Others are highly optimistic. Jessa said she and Philip would be grateful just to spend time with her family in the Philippines should the government decide to relax restrictions.

“We aren’t planning on roaming around the city or going to some tourist attractions as it will be a big risk for everyone. We intend to follow the safety protocols so we get to meet each other while assuring the safety of our loved ones,” she said.

Similarly, Hazel said the plan to reunite with David was never just about going on a vacation but to start planning a possible marriage.

“We have waited a long time to find each other and so desperately want to be together and start our life together. We know there are so many others in the same position. We believe that couples should not be needlessly separated when adequate safety precautions can be taken. There is a clear distinction between tourism and visiting loved ones,” she said.

Though considered “non-essential” travel, Bigs said traveling to visit a loved one should be considered as the opposite.

“We are finally getting recognized. We just hope it will happen really soon. After all, we are fighting for an essential need. We are fighting for love,” she said.

‘Studying’

Manila has suspended the issuance of visas as early as March 2020 to prevent imported cases of Covid-19 in the Philippines, prohibiting the entry of foreigners.

At present, inbound travel to the Philippines is only possible if you’re a foreign investor or the spouse or child of a Filipino citizen. Unmarried partners are still barred from entering the country under existing rules.

The government has explained that travel restrictions are meant to prevent foreigners from illegally entering the country -- a policy that prevented binational couples from reuniting.

Local authorities are currently studying calls to lift non-essential inbound travel.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who is supportive of the #LoveIsNotTourism campaign, has also vowed to raise the matter before the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID). Azer Parrocha and Joyce Ann L. Rocamora

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