TAIPEI - A requirement that U.S. citizens get visas for travel in the Philippines would hobble the Southeast Asian country's tourism industry to ease a pair of high-level political spats, analysts say.
U.S. citizens can enter the beach-studded archipelago now on a visa-free landing stamp, saving time and any application fees before travel.
"If we look at the situation of the Philippines in relation with the U.S., of course the Philippines will lose more with that kind of option (a visa rule) than Americans," said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman "Americans will have other options."
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said last month via his office's website that Americans would be required to apply for tourist visas if the United States bars entry by officials from Manila who are linked to the imprisonment of Leila de Lima, a Philippine senator who's at odds with Duterte.
The visa requirement would dim resentment among Filipinos who believe today's rules are unfair. Filipinos need $160 visas for the United States but do not always qualify.
The tit-for-tat would bite into a tourism industry that generated $4.78 billion in the first half of 2019, analysts say, because the United States is the third largest source of arrivals after South Korea and China.
Americans asked to spend time and money on a visa could go instead to half a dozen other Southeast Asian countries either visa free or with with a visa payable upon landing.
International tourist arrivals to the Philippines rose by 7.7% to 7.1 million visitors in 2018 over 2017, Philippine Department of Trade and Industry figures show. Of those visitors, 1,587,959 came from South Korea, 1,255,258 from China and 1,034,396 from the United States.
Americans often travel to the Philippines for beach holidays and tours of old Spanish architecture.
Filipino-Americans who still hold Philippine passports could still get back into their old homeland without visas. "It will probably be the tourists (who are affected), American tourists who are not from here," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Metro Manila-based advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
Senator vs. Duterte
A visa requirement would answer the Philippine government's opposition to a U.S. budget proposal to ban entry to the United States by certain officials linked to the De Lima case.
De Lima, a harsh critic of Duterte, was charged in 2017 with orchestrating a drug-trafficking ring while justice secretary before 2015. Some believe her arrest was politically motivated.
The 2020 U.S. budget contains a provision authorizing the Secretary of State to ban Philippine officials from entry if the U.S. side finds "credible information" that they "have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment" of De Lima."
"We have explained repeatedly that the subject provision is ineffective given that the Filipino Senator is not wrongfully detained," presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said via his office's website. If the U.S. goes ahead, he said, "This government will require all Americans intending to come to the Philippines to apply and secure a visa before they can enter Philippine territory."
The U.S. Embassy in Manila did not answer a request last week for comment.
A visa rule for Americans might also set a stage for negotiations on visa rules from both sides, Casiple said. Filipinos must apply for visas to enter the United States and not everyone gets approval.
"I think it will be within the context of renegotiation, not a policy immediately," he said. "Particularly, it will raise the question of reciprocity."
Filipinos have historically seen the wealthier United States as a place to find high-paid work and remit money to family back home. Tourist visa applicants pay a $160 fee and must pass a consular interview to be approved. U.S. Department of Homeland Security data show that 5,276 Filipinos overstayed non-immigrant "pleasure" visas in 2018.
Duterte might not act on his threat, some caution.
"I don't take Duterte's visa threats too seriously, as he has a history of just spouting off," said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York. "Our countries' relationship will long outlast Duterte's reign. We can't overreact to every little thing he does."
If the United States hits back, King said, it should avoid hurting an overall U.S.-friendly Filipino public and instead "personally needle Duterte."