We didn’t know they had that award, but there it was: Travel+Leisure, a magazine devoted to international tourism, giving Palawan the “World’s Best Island” title.
That was no surprise, either, after Unesco last year named Puerto Princesa’s Underground River as One of the Seven Wonders of Nature. The other is Tubahatta Reef, where USS Guardian ran aground when it came too close, so the unverified information goes, to give the crew a chance to dive and frolic in the pristine water.
Although it does not have anything remotely comparable, Thailand attracts infinitely more tourists that we do, which only reinforces the lingering suspicion that we have not been successful at parlaying our resources to full advantage.
In all of Southeast Asia, we’re the laggard in tourism, as we are in agriculture and industry.
Tourists look for something out of the ordinary. They flock to Great Britain for a sense of history, France for a taste of the good life, and Monaco for high-stake gambling. Italy and Greece have their own attraction: the Colosseum and Sistine Chapel for the first and the Parthenon and Colossus of Rhodes for the second.
On the other hand, Southeast Asia evokes sun, beaches, and swaying palms.
The picture or at least the idea is widely popular in the cold climes of Europe. Sadly, when on vacation, the English, French, Italians, and other people in the northern latitudes book their flights to Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia. Not to the Philippines.
That may be changing. The DOT campaign is paying off. From a flat growth of just a little over 3 million over a three year period, the number of tourist arrivals spurted to 3.52 million in 2010, 3.91 million in 2011, and 4.27 in 2012.
It could breach, hopefully, the 5 million mark this year. And with 1.65 million tourist arrivals registered in the first four months of the year, that is not a far-fetched idea, either.
Our biggest markets are South Korea, the US, and Japan, in that order. That shows we have an untapped market in Europe, but as earlier observed, the people there stop at Thailand, Indonesia, or Malaysia. They go no farther to make the last leg of the journey to the Philippines.
DOT is to be commended for its successful salesmanship. Now if only the other agencies of the government could work in step with one another.
In Field of Dreams, a disembodied voice tells Kevin Costner, “If you build it, he will come,” referring to his long-dead father.
The tourists will come, if we build or at least refurbish airports and seaports in strategic areas of the country, and, of course, the roads to and from them. If we can do that, we’d be in good shape to compete in the region.
In a country of more than 7,000 islands, the strategy is a must. Unlike Thailand, which only has Pattaya, we have an embarrassment of riches as far as tourist destinations are concerned. Practically every part of the country has something to offer the jaded foreign visitor.
Apart from Palawan, we have the world famous Boracay, adjudged by the way as the second best island by the same publication. Then there are the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, the Eden Nature Park in Davao, Siargao Island Resort in Surigao, and others too numerous to mention here.
An oft-repeated lament is that the country does not have enough accommodation for tourists. That may be true, but if the government comes up with the infrastructure, the private sector will build the hotels and restaurants without any prodding from anybody. In fact, it will be the government’s role to step in to rationalize the building frenzy, something that is happening now in Boracay and other places that loom high in foreign visitor preference.
The government and the private sector must cooperate to ensure the security of the visitors. It is newspaper accounts of kidnapping and terrorism that drive away tourists in the first place.
It may come as a surprise to many, but there are countries that depend solely on tourism for their wealth, for their very existence in fact.
Our objective is much less modest, and that is to have a slice of the world’s tourist receipts, proportionate to the country’s grandeur and beauty. If we play our cards well, tourism could become bigger than the business process outsourcing or the electronics sectors.
That could very well be the cure to our chronic unemployment problem—and our salvation.