New vehicle sales in the Philippines jumped by almost 88% to 20,702 units in March 2021 from depressed year-earlier sales of 11,029 units, according to member wholesale data released jointly by the Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines Inc (CAMPI) and the Truck Manufacturers Association (TMA).

This was the first month of year-on-year growth for over a year after sales declined by almost 40% to 223,793 units in 2020 from 369,941 units in 2019, based on member data compiled by the two associations.

The Philippines is one of the economies in Asia worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with GDP shrinking by 9.5% last year as a result of prolonged lockdowns which held back private consumption and investment, and declining exports. GDP is estimated to have expanded by just over 2% in the first quarter of 2021, but the imposition of new restrictions due to the recent surge in virus infections has dampened sentiment.

Last month’s volume was still down by 21% compared with February’s 26,230 sales, which CAMPI president Rommel Gutierrez attributed to a combination of new lockdowns in some key areas of the country and also the imposition of “provisional safeguard duties” by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) at the end of February.

The duties, introduced to help protect the local industry, amount to PHP70,000 (US$1,443) for imported passenger cars and PHP110,000 ($2,268) for imported light commercial vehicles and are expected to be in place for at least six months.

The share of imports has increased steadily over the last 15 years following the implementation of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, from 40% to more than 70% of total sales. Shipments of assembled vehicles from Thailand and Indonesia rose particularly sharply in this period and brands such as Ford and Nissan have switched entirely to imports.

In the first three months of 2021, vehicle sales rose by almost 9% to 70,312 units from 64,542 units a year earlier with passenger vehicle sales surging by close to 23% to 21,855 while commercial vehicle sales were up by 4% at 48,457 units.