MANILA – There is no stopping thousands of Filipinos working or residing in the United States, Canada and other parts of the globe from joining an exodus of returning Filipinos or balikbayans this Christmas season and New Year for holiday reunions with their families and loved ones, among others.

From the United States and Canada alone, all flights are booked for the whole month of December and throngs of Filipino Americans and Filipino Canadians are instead expected to be in the Philippines by January 2021, according to Cielo Villaluna, Corporate Communications and spokesperson of Philippine Air Lines which had mounted non-stop international flights for the holidays.

This shaped up after the government relaxed travel rules for foreigners and Filipinos with dual citizenship in the United States, Canada and other countries, many of whom are allowed visa-free travels and can stay for one year, even as it warned the travellers to strictly comply with health regulations like Covid testing, social distancing, use of face masks and face shields and observance proper hygiene.

The government’s decision came as several countries have eased restrictions and air travel gradually resumed, many of which are connected to the Philippines which expect to boost the economy.

At press time, latest data from the Department of Foreign Affairs showed that 57 countries have already allowed entry while seven have no longer inbound restrictions. Some 81 states also imposed a travel ban on tourists but allow entry based on exemptions.

Churches in Manila and throughout the country, meanwhile, are girding for the traditional “Simbang Gabi” masses by announcing schedules and more churches for the masses to be able to ensure social distancing and protect the health of church-goers.

Meanwhile, the DFA intensified its repatriation efforts in time for the Philippine holiday season. Between 1 and 5 December 2020, the DFA repatriated 9,981 overseas Filipinos – its highest 5-day total since July 2020. This brings the total number of repatriated overseas Filipinos to 287,301.

Returning overseas Filipinos from the Middle East continue to comprise the majority of DFA’s repatriates. The breakdown per region is as follows: 8,432 (84.48%) from the Middle East; 843 (8.45%) from Asia and the Pacific; and 706 (7.07%) from Europe

Five medical repatriations from Bahrain, Japan, Oman, Russia, and Thailand were successfully facilitated by the DFA and its foreign service posts. The DFA also assisted in the return of a Filipino family, including two minor children, from Iraq, 11 distressed students from Indonesia, and three undocumented OFWs/trafficking victims from Syria.

As the country enters the holiday season, the DFA stands ready to assist our distressed overseas Filipinos who wish to come home, wherever they are in the world.

Following the cue from the government, domestic and foreign airlines led by the Philippine Air Lines and All Nippon Airways are mounting more flights to the Philippines from and to several countries like US, Canada, Australia, Europe and the Middle East.

With the approval of President Rodrigo Duterte, the Inter Agency Task Force on Infectious Disease (IATF) lifted the travel restrictions on balikbayans and their families and allowed visa free entry to former Filipinos, most of whom are set to arrive on the second week of January 2021 because the December seats are all taken.

According to IATF, only 3,000 international in-coming passengers per day are allowed to land at NAIA, Cebu, Davao and Clark and other airports due to the pandemic.

Along with balikbayans, expected to come are vacationing overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) starting the second week of December for the Christmas season, but a heavier volume of Filipinos will be arriving in January 2021 due to the new visa free policy.

All visitors will take Covid tests at the airport upon arrival and undergo quarantine in hotels accredited by the Department of Tourism (DOT).

Filipinos who became American citizens were already booking flights to the Philippines since November 27, but many could not get visas from the Philippine Embassy and consulates in Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles and others because of the big number of applicants and due to the travel restrictions which had not yet been lifted. They got confirmed tickets on the second week of January 2021, it was learned.

Cielo Villaluna, PAL spokesperson, said PAL it is mounting nonstop flights to international destinations from the Americas, the Middle East, Europe and Asia as it welcomed the government’s move to allow the visa-free entry of ‘Balikbayans’, effective Dec. 7.

The visa-free privilege applies to foreign spouses and children of Filipino nationals, provided they travel with the Filipino nationals. The Bureau of Immigration, however, clarified that foreign spouses should travel with Filipino spouses and children.

The travelers also allowed entry are foreigners with Philippine Resident Visas, Seamen /Foreign Airline crew (crew visa), accredited Foreign Government Officials/International Organization Officials and their dependents (diplomatic visa) and holders of Special Non-Immigrant Visas.

“Travelers from the United States, Canada, the U.K., Australia and much of Asia will get to enjoy PAL’s nonstop flights to the Philippines, designed for a safe travel experience that avoids connecting via other countries, and offering strong health and safety measures to protect our passengers,” PAL’s Villaluna said.

The Philippine Consulate General in San Francisco lauded the latest action of Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease (IATF-MEID) embodied in Resolution 85 easing restrictions on entry to the Philippines measures and also pursuant to Republic Act 6768 or the Balikbayan Program.

The IATF action formalized on November 26 and approved by President Duterte allowed travel starting December 7, 2020.

As per IATF resolution, the Philippine Consulate said the following shall be allowed visa-free entry to the Philippines:

a) Filipino citizens’ foreign spouses and children, regardless of age, who are travelling with them; and

b) Former Filipino citizens, including their spouses and children, regardless of age, who are travelling with them.

The following conditions, however, must be followed with the entry of the aforementioned foreign nationals:

a) They must be nationals/allowed to enter the country visa-free under Executive Order No. 408, s. 1960, such as U.S. citizens;

b) They must have a pre-booked quarantine facility;

c) They must have a pre-booked COVID-19 testing at a laboratory operating at the airport; and

d) They are subject to the maximum capacity of inbound passengers at the port of entry during the date of entry.

Also, the entry of the foreign nationals shall be subject to the implementing guidelines to be issued by the Bureau of Immigration.

The IATF resolution was warmly received by Consul-General Henry Bensurto Jr. whose office was swarmed with inquiries from San Francisco Consulate-based Filipinos on possibilities of going back to the Philippines for the Christmas holidays which has become a tradition for many.

“We welcome the decision of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) to allow again the “balikbayans” to enter the Philippines visa-free,” said Consul General Henry Bensurto, Jr. “It enables Filipinos to be reunited with their families and friends at Christmas time amid the pandemic and gives a boost to the Philippine economy, especially the travel, tourism and hotel industries”

The Consulate said that other foreign spouses and children of Filipino nationals who do not belong to the aforementioned categories shall remain subject to existing travel restrictions.

More information can be secured by email to the Consulate at visa@philippinessanfrancisco.org.

On Facebook, PAL said the following flights from the United States and Canada will be available every week:

From the United States

Los Angeles – Manila (up to six flights per week)
San Francisco – Manila (up to four flights per week)
New York – Manila (two flights per week)
Honolulu – Manila (up to two flights weekly)
Guam – Manila (up to two flights weekly)
From Canada

Toronto – Manila (once weekly)
Vancouver-Manila (two flights weekly weekly)
From the United Kingdom

London (Heathrow)-Manila (up to two flights weekly)

PAL advised that passengers arriving in the Philippines who are non-OFWs, can visit the One Stop Shop testing center for the mandatory RT-PCR tests at NAIA Terminal 2, for a lower charge of P4,000, with test results within 12 to 24 hours.

OFWs, meanwhile, will be swabbed by the government testing center at the airport, free of charge (the cost shouldered by the Philippine government).

“Passengers arriving at Manila airport are required to register at least three (3) days prior to their date of departure to arrange for the mandated COVID-19 swab test (RT-PCR) to be administered upon arrival,” PAL said.

“Passengers arriving in Cebu (Mactan Cebu International Airport or MCIA), are required to register online not earlier than five (5) days prior to their flight departure via the Passenger Arrival Registration Form.”

“Passengers arriving in Clark (Clark International Airport) are required to fill out the Health Declaration Card, Case Investigation Form, and the Affidavit of Undertaking to be collected upon arrival. (with Jun Nucum/Philippine News Today/Country Currents)