A pioneer shares insights on the industry she helpED shape
One does not mess with Alejandra Clemente. Do so and she is likely to give you an earful.
Except these days, the well-known chairman of Rajah Tours Philippines Group of Companies, feels the persons – and they shall remain unnamed – currently stressing her out should, perhaps, be better left ignored. Dading, as everyone calls the quintessential “Face of Philippine tourism,” is nearing the 80-year milestone and aggravation is the last thing she needs in her life.
That life, shared with her husband, the late Jose “Joe” Clemente, can only be described as colorful, if not unpredictably exciting. The couple, who met at the tourism department’s precursor, Board of Travel and Tourism Industry (BTTI), were the early architects of our hospitality trade. Dading credits Marcos’ Martial Law in 1972 as the catalyst for unmitigated growth.
Welcoming mass tourism
“It made everything possible,” she recalls. “Peace and order improved. The streets were clean (thanks to the ubiquitous brigade of red and yellow-clad Metro Manila aides, which was the New Society’s first line of defense against a careless public) and there was no traffic.”
Backed by a capital of 10,000 pesos, not a sum to sneeze at in the early 1970s, Rajah Tours set up shop under the stairs in a corner of the Ambassador Hotel along Mabini Street with only a tiny staff. While Joe remained at the BTTI, which was morphing into the full-fledged Department of Tourism (DoT), led by newspaperman-turned-bureacrat Secretary Jose D. Aspiras (“Joe”), his spouse was hatching novel schemes.
“I thought of opening up the country to the Hong Kong market, 90 percent of whose residents did not have travel documents, only residency certificates. So not many doors were open to them,” Dading says.
By chance, she met Ronnie Yuen, a Hong Kong tour operator who later became chairman of the powerful Hong Kong Travel Industry Council. Yuen was managing to bring in small groups from what was then dubbed the “Crown Colony”. “He showed me the potential of his clients if we could relax our immigration policy,” Dading also recalls. She consulted Joe, who improved on her plan and presented it to Aspiras. It was an instant go and the Hong Kongers were allowed “to enter without visa,” enjoying a valid stay of 21 days.
Not content, Dading simultaneously targeted the Japan market, working to lift restrictions here as well. The double whammy resulted in boosting arrivals from 187,000 in 1972 to between one to three million in the immediate years following. “The other tour operators benefited from my labors,” she said, but admitting there was a point when she could no longer handle the thousands of tourists arriving daily keen to explore an alluring neighbor.
Pagsanjan Falls, Hidden Valley, Villa Escudero, now staples of a basic Luzon itinerary, were then untried but promising attractions, which served their purpose for many years until supplanted by the hipper and more lifestyle-oriented Boracay and Palawan. Baguio, Dading sold as an optional tour. The no-longer existing Makati’s Sulo and Zamboanga Restaurant along Mabini Street presented a quick cultural fix staging stylized tribal and mestizo dances and tableaux.
Cruise ships began to revive Manila stopovers, which kept Dading and her blossoming team on their toes even more.
Call it superb timing, but the prospect of hosting the IMF-World Bank Conference in 1976 tested the mettle of Manila as an international venue, and Rajah Tours as a capable tourism service provider in a then wifi-less (gasp) world. By then, Joe had left the DoT to support Dading, and the couple ventured further to nurture the European and North American clientele base.
At this point, it is clear that Dading greatly misses the other half of that dynamic partnership, even 17 years after his passing in San Francisco of a heart attack. “He had a very good personality. Siya ang taga-preno sa akin (He tells me to take it easy) when I got too aggressive,” her eyes light up at the memory. The more prudent Joe was constantly reminding the missus to think before leaping.“ ‘Are you going to make a profit on this business you’re trying to get,’ he would tell me,” Dading says. “I’m different. I want to get the business before thinking of the profit.”
Who usually won the argument?
Dading will only smile impishly and say: “I was the dominant character in the relationship.”
Leny Roco-Fabul, executive director of the Philippine Hotel Owners Association and a highly regarded tourism marketing specialist herself, describes the pair as very different in personalities and understands how much Dading misses him. “Joe was a respectable gentleman and very kind to people.”
Roller coaster ride
The conference room in Rajah Tours’ T.M. Kalaw office, facing the National Library, really should be renamed the Trophy Room, chockablock as it is with the accolades and awards bestowed on Dading and Joe through the years. There are still many others that she has placed in boxes and stowed away elsewhere. Rajah Tours has received several Kalakbay awards (now defunct) and Presidential Tourism Award for Inbound Operators in 1991, 1993 and again in 1994.
“The Clementes are the pillars of the tourism industry,” a veteran former DoT executive stressed to us, as if those rows of multi-shaped prizes were not testimony enough to the pair’s passion for perfection and professionalism in catering to their clients.
The trophies, however, do not reveal the backstory of the roller coaster ride the Clementes and their industry peers experienced during the waning years of the Marcos regime, dealt a death blow by Ninoy Aquino’s NAIA murder; the uncertainty of the Cory administration, studded by several coup attempts; annoying power outtages in Manila during Fidel V. Ramos’ time; the short-lived Erap leadership; and even the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998.
“We expanded, adding conventions, conferences and incentives to Rajah Tours, becoming a PCO (professional congress organizer), the first to offer these services in Manila,” Dading recalls. Joe was the go-to person in this field, having supervised their activities during the IMF-World Bank powwow. “But I learned the business too in the natural course of things.”
Adjusting to reality
Selling a destination with so capricious a social, political and actual climate might have convinced a lesser spirit to abandon the good effort, but you do not equate Dading Clemente, whose petite frame belies a will of fiery steel, with chickening out. She coolly says: “You step back, try to get up and overcome the challenge.
“As someone who started 45 years ago, I have learned to adjust to the situation, be patient and accept the reality in front of me.”
The elephant that has been in the room with us since the start of the BoardRoom Watch interview suddenly stirs, and we manage to address it in connection with the intense frustration she feels about the current state of Philippine tourism. “Your expectation is that people in government ought to be capable, qualified and know what they are doing.
“Joe Aspiras was down to earth and he tried to learn what the industry needed. He worked on your proposal and made sure it would be done. He opened the doors of an industry that helped the country.
“There is a tourism masterplan. All they have to do is activate and follow it.”
Dading has never believed beauty pageants could deliver the arrival numbers – in the short or long run – and the recent Miss Universe tilt in January has given her no reason to budge. “Passe na yung mga beauty contests, kaya binenta ni Trump ang Miss Universe. No one is interested in them anymore.”
She would rather the tourism honchos bid for conferences and conventions and incentive group events, which can be planned for since these take place every five years or so. “The people who come for these are high spenders and their money goes into the economy. Also bringing in the money are casinos and their hotels – sila talaga ang nagdadala ng high-yield guests.”
And you can forget about the Korean and mainland Chinese enhancing our local coffers, our tourism profile yes with their numbers, but not the economy. The truth is these groups are managed solely by their own people, who may go into local partnerships for practical purposes. A number of Koreans have set up a second home in the Philippines, and merely take advantage of cheap charter flight fares to get here.
“The DoT has allowed the situation. They have not put in safeguards, which by law they are mandated to do,” Dading reveals. “Korean operators have also destroyed an industry practice by creating an artificial credit shortage. Hotels and resorts used to extend credit, now they ask for 50 percent, if not full payment. For still important markets like Japan, used to credit extension of say 60 days, it is becoming very difficult to book.”
Two of her four children, Jose Clemente III (Jojo) and Aileen head Rajah Tours and its highly successful offshoot Rajah Travel respectively, leaving their mother to choose the projects she fancies, including still growing the Filipino-American sector. “Rajah is her life,” Jojo observes. “It’s what she knows best.”
She agrees saying: “If I didn’t work, I would have alzheimer’s by now. I can’t play mahjongg (to stimulate my mind) because the people I used to play with are all dead. So I work.”
If there is one person, who will not “go gentle into that good night”, that would be Dading Clemente.
PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN