Sep 292016

Tourism industry professionals I have been talking to are giving me the picture of a tourism industry that has gone adrift. I suspected as much and I pin the blame on the appointment of a Tourism Secretary who took an assignment that is way beyond her pay grade.

I imagine that when she was appointed, President Duterte didn’t give it much thought. Tourism wasn’t on top of his list of priorities. He didn’t know what the job entailed in terms of a prospective appointee’s capability and experience. And he didn’t know too many people in the industry beyond a local travel agent. Puede na yan.

Little did the President know that the job of Tourism Secretary required more than knowledge of booking tickets and taking visitors around tourist spots. It requires solid marketing experience and a level of sophistication that would allow her to sell the country in a very competitive tourism market.

Luckily, the last Tourism Secretary did his homework very well. He came up with a road map for the development of the industry which includes very specific plans on things to do for a number of years beyond his term of office. He also invested in a catchy marketing campaign that can be as promising as the long term image campaigns of Thailand, Malaysia and India.

It is really a pity if the current Secretary of Tourism is unable to follow through the gains of the past. Continuity is important if we want to realize dividends from our investment in the Philippine brand captured by It’s More Fun in the Philippines.

As the PhilSTAR editorial last Wednesday puts it, “Many countries have turned tourism into a pillar of economic growth. China, whose export-oriented economy has been hit by weak global demand, is pushing tourism as an engine of growth, pouring resources to develop infrastructure and train workers for the travel and tourism industry.”

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Indeed, we have this legendary lack of focus on the right priorities in developing a tourism industry that is comparable to our neighbors. Sayang. We have better natural attractions, we have more hospitable people who are tops in an industry where personal touch is paramount.

Again the PhilSTAR editorial continues: “The Philippines, despite being blessed with world-class travel attractions, has a lot of catching up to do in tourism even within Southeast Asia. Malaysia, Thailand and even tiny Singapore long surpassed the Philippines in tourist arrivals and receipts.

“Indonesia has recovered from the terrorist bombings in its top destination, the resort island of Bali. If the Philippines does not give the travel industry more attention, the country may soon eat the dust of Vietnam and Cambodia, with Myanmar close behind.”

Eating the dust of Cambodia and Myanmar should hurt our national pride. And I can see that coming. With just temple ruins as attraction, Cambodia’s tourism industry is moving up fast. I was recently in Myanmar and I saw how tourism is also becoming an important economy booster.

What are we going to do to meet the challenge of our neighbors in the tourism industry?

To put the challenge in perspective, let us just take Phuket… one island in Thailand that is a tourist phenomenon. Thailand attracts about 30 million tourists a year and Phuket is said to account for a third of that. We are talking 10 million tourists for one small island.

Consider that of the top 10 islands rated highly by readers of Travel and Leisure magazine, the first two and the sixth are ours. Palawan is number one, Boracay is number two and Cebu is number 6. Santorini is just number 5 and Bali is number 10.

T+L observed “The Philippines’ predominance shows that discerning travelers are willing to travel great distances for the rewards of clear waters and sugary white beaches.”

Phuket is not even on the list. Yet, our whole country cannot attract the number of tourists that go to Phuket every year.

Infrastructure is one reason. Phuket has constructed a new airport that can handle 12.4 million arrivals every year. The old airport, which will handle domestic flights, has capacity for 6.5 million.

What does Duterte’s travel agent have by way of meeting this kind of serious challenge from our neighbors? She wants to hold the Miss Universe pageant here. Duterte had the right instincts when he initially rejected the idea. He should have stuck to his original decision.

What we need is a serious plan, which we already have, thanks to former Sec Mon Jimenez. What Duterte’s travel agent should do is to implement it. So what if the plan isn’t hers? Duterte himself said he doesn’t mind copying if it is for the nation’s good.

Holding Miss Universe here is a flash in the pan. The attention we will get will last a couple of weeks and I doubt if it will even be a factor in making a potential tourist decide to come here.

Duterte’s travel agent says Miss Universe will not cost the taxpayer a centavo. I wish I can believe that.

Having been from the marketing industry, I know such events require government guarantees. We have to know how much our contingent liability is in case we are unable to mount the beauty contest for whatever reason – security threat or natural calamity.

Duterte’s travel agent says private sector pledges now account for half the total costs. Pledges are nothing unless collected. Who are these people making these pledges and what is the value of their word? What is the total cost? Duterte should order his travel agent to be more transparent.

Given the pitiful condition of our infrastructure, we shouldn’t be hosting high profile international events. It is likely that half of the stories coming out of the contest will be about horrendous traffic in Manila, on the ground and in the air.

The Miss Universe aside, does Duterte’s travel agent have an inkling what’s needed in a worldwide tourism campaign? I heard she is now in Europe and one of her usecs is in the United States. Gallivanting abroad is what tourism officials do and the cost for this job perk is carried by taxpayers. What is the payback for these foreign trips?

Did Duterte’s travel agent even consider that Europe is in a recession? Travel to places halfway around the world for many Europeans is probably low priority. As for America, I suspect the only ones we are attracting there are former Pinoys. There are more cost effective ways of getting them to come home.

Given that the tourism budget had been slashed by 26 percent, they have to carefully watch where the money is going. They need to look at the tourism statistics and concentrate their efforts in places where we have the most potential of getting tourists to come here.

The numbers indicate that we will get the most bang out of our budgeted tourism peso by concentrating our firepower in the region. The Koreans, the Japanese, the Taiwanese and the Chinese are our top visitors. Convince more of them to come here rather than Phuket.

In the end, the competence of Duterte’s travel agent will be measured by the tourist arrivals. Mon Jimenez made the audacious goal of attracting 10 million knowing it wouldn’t be attained. He only wanted to challenge his fellow Cabinet members. Unfortunately, Jun Abaya didn’t bite so tourism transportation infra remained horrible.

But we have a far better Transport secretary now and between Sec Art Tugade and DPWH Sec Mark Villar, we can reasonably see improvements in infra that can make the 10 million goal attainable during Duterte’s term.

The final test is simply this: How many tourists will actually come during the watch of Duterte’s travel agent? She has an awesome job and she should not waste her time on distractions like beauty contests and go straight to the meat of her challenge.

But as I said, she may have accepted a job beyond her pay grade. I love to be proven wrong by credible tourism statistics in the next few years.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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