The depiction of Manila in Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno as the “gates of hell” is depressingly accurate, no matter how much Metro Manila Development Authority head Francis Tolentino is willing to embarrass himself with protestations to the contrary. In the book, one of the characters, Dr. Sienna Brooks, visits the Philippines at the invitation of a humanitarian group, expecting to witness tropical beauty while helping poor farmers and fishermen in the countryside. Instead, she “gapes in horror” at poverty on a scale she had never seen, and “six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution and a horrifying sex trade.”
Suffering a kind of panic attack, the fictional Dr. Brooks runs away through Manila’s crowded streets, finally stopping “. . . in a kind of shantytown—a city made of pieces of corrugated metal and cardboard propped up and held together. All around her the wails of crying babies and the stench of human excrement hung in the air.” I’ve run through the gates of hell, she thinks.
And what was the reaction of the man who is at least partly responsible for managing some of those problems? According to a report by ABS-CBN, “Tolentino said Manila is the ‘doorway to heaven’ because of its religious beliefs. This is where the ‘cradle of Catholicism’ is found, he said,” as if religious piety somehow contraindicates poverty and dysfunctional infrastructure, adding that “Manila’s traffic is only around two hours long—at most.”
If Dan Brown has any response at all to Chairman Tolentino, it will probably be to thank him for the publicity. Personally, I’ve found Brown’s popular series of books pedantic and mildly annoying, but even I bought a copy of Inferno, just to see what all the fuss was about. Thanks to Tolentino (who admitted he hadn’t actually read the book), what is basically a literacy device—albeit one that is an accurate description from someone who has obviously been here—advancing a story about a fictional character’s spiritual and emotional journey has turned into a cause célèbre; Dan Brown the writer might be a little disappointed that people are apparently missing the point about a story that is not actually about Manila or the Philippines at all, but Dan Brown the author whose living depends on sales volume is probably pretty happy about the whole thing.
And despite Tolentino’s wanting to wish all the bad things away, Metro Manila has painfully obvious problems. According to the most recent World Health Organization database, Metro Manila’s air quality ranks 800th in the world out of 1,099 cities and urban areas monitored since 2008, and the pollution is mainly attributable to vehicle traffic—someone should tell Chairman Tolentino that two-hour traffic instead of six-hour traffic is not really an achievement. About 37 percent of Metro Manila’s population lives in slum areas, according to most credible estimates.
Tolentino and his government colleagues, particularly those whose responsibilities include attracting as many foreign visitors and their money to the country as possible, would like the outside world to believe it truly is “More Fun in the Philippines” and do their best to present an image of the country as wall-to-wall Barrio Fiesta, shopping malls and Boracay beaches, but that is not the impression most visitors, at least first-time visitors, take away. Even Boracay, that national gem whose position as one of the world’s top tourist spots, supposedly makes the assault-course of an atrocious international airport and Manila’s filthy congestion one has to pass to get to it forgettable, is beginning to lose its luster: An article published this past weekend in the Los Angeles Times travel section (“Trouble in party paradise: Boracay Island in Philippines,” May 26) gave a rather downbeat assessment, decrying the island’s crowding and overdevelopment. “I found the people quite wonderful,” says the writer, Catharine Hamm. “But what I didn’t find was the hoped-for piece of paradise that would shoot to the top of my favorite sun and sand destinations. If Boracay had been a first date, there wouldn’t have been a second.”
Once one is here for a period of time, one learns that perceptions are complex. My first couple of days in the Philippines—apart from the time I was spending with my then-fiancée—were frankly horrifying to my first-world sensibilities. But that was many years ago; even though I realize that all those horrifying things are just as pervasive as ever, I find unexpected beauty everywhere. That wouldn’t be possible without a realistic perspective, and fixing all those problems—because after all, choking pollution, paralyzing traffic, and rampant poverty and hopelessness are not right, and are not things that anyone wants to see or be resigned to accepting—is not possible without a realistic perspective, either.
And ironically, being realistic about the problems, even embracing them, might provide unexpected opportunities for the tourism industry that is the source of such anxiety for the country’s leadership. There is a growing trend in the world toward what is loosely referred to as “poverty tourism”: A niche for those who are bored with conventional ideas of tourism, seek a more “authentic” cultural experience, or who have strong feelings about the environmental and social side effects of tourism. Poverty tourism takes different forms, such as slum tours, volunteer tourism (“voluntourism”) where vacation time is spent on social projects, disaster tourism, and social immersion, such as living for a few days or weeks with a native family.
The practical benefit of poverty tourism, along with the social benefits of promoting greater cultural understanding and sensitivity, is that a greater proportion of revenue inflows reach poor communities directly, reducing the poverty-alleviation burden on the government and promoting small-scale entrepreneurship. The risk is that poverty tourism, if not well-managed, can become exploitative; while it should have an ultimate objective of helping to raise communities out of poverty by simply making the best of otherwise undesirable circumstances and should therefore be considered only a temporary measure, its success can actually be a disincentive to making improvements.
Despite the risk, poverty tourism is an intriguing possibility, and a way to generate valuable social support for a great many people who need it. Gates of Hell? That might be something the adventurous want to see. Why not make the most of it and actually help people in the process, instead of trying to convince the rest of the world those people don’t exist?