I HAVE organized international academic conferences in the Philippines, hosted my foreigner friends for brief visits, and toured the country with my international students in recent months. With all the bad publicity circulating on mainstream and social media about bullet-planting scams in our airports, it makes me think what first and last impressions we give our tourists.
A few weeks ago, I lectured on sustainable tourism to Yale University and University of British Columbia business students at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati City. The first impression they mentioned was that they were ripped off by erring cab drivers for a P2,000-airport transfer. I was not quite surprised because a few months back, when I organized an international conference in Boracay, my own Vietnamese student was almost ripped off for the same amount. I just quipped there is Uber and that will make their stay more convenient.
While in the Philippines, tourists enjoy Filipino hospitality, the beaches, food, eco-tourism, heritage and historical tourism, and they basically have an awesome time imbibing the hashtag #itsmorefuninthephilippines. Indeed, with the hopes of making a good impression, we cover up the shortcomings of our transportation sector and explain that it is payday or a mega sale so there is heavy traffic everywhere. One time, on a number-coded day, I took a cab with my Uzbek student and he wondered why cab drivers would not take us for a two-kilometer ride home that would normally take 20 minutes. I gave outrageous reasons like the cab driver was about to have dinner, or he was on his way home. Finally, I ran out of excuses and told the truth that it is rush hour and they simply want to add more money on top of the bill.
One time, after a conference in Boracay when all delegates had gone home or flown out of the country, a Thai delegate was still stuck in Kalibo because the budget airline simply cancelled the trip and transferred everybody to a grossly delayed flight (no explanations offered).
I was in Cebu the other week for an academic conference, and the Queen City never fails to impress me. Of course there is traffic too, but only on rush hours. But what is admirable is the honesty of cab drivers in taking passengers and giving the exact change. Our foreign delegates fell in love with the city. Our Manila-based delegates felt they were in another country.
As the conference ended, I had to warn my Taiwanese and Thai friends about the bullet-planting scheme. I told them that they should take extra caution at the airport with their belongings. With bags full of dried mangoes, of course, they had to make sure their packing was “bullet proof.” As expected, as everybody flew out of Mactan, budget airlines started ruining the fun by cancelling flights and a Japan-based delegate had to buy a Philippine Airlines business class ticket just to make it to his international flight.
As I developed a sustainable tourism framework with Dr. John Paolo Rivera of AIM, we pointed out that tourism is mostly private-sector driven. Tourism in the Philippines is more than just an airport facelift or a catchy slogan; it is a coordinated effort of all stakeholders. At the end of the day, the first and last impressions are what matters whether tourists will recommend the Philippines or put out a big fat warning on trip advisors about cab drivers, budget airlines, and bullet-planting airport staff.
My favorite slogan from the Department of Tourism was “Bring home a friend.” It was perhaps one of the most successful campaigns and probably an emerging framework on how tourism works in the country. If stakeholders will not cooperate to promote tourism, then let us all just be cautious when inviting friends over, make sure we pick them up from the airport, assist them in airline bookings, and finally send them off the old-fashioned way and make sure nobody plants bullets in their bags.
Michael Angelo A. Cortez, CPA, MBA, DBA is a visiting professor and researcher at De La Salle University, Philippines; a visiting research fellow at the Center for Tourism, Asian Institute of Management; and an associate professor of accounting at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan. For correspondence, email email@example.com or tweet @ cortezsensei.The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.