Time to take tourism seriously

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Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

The job of Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez has got to be uniquely frustrating these days. Although tourism probably should be considered a minor priority in calamities like the devastating earthquake that struck Bohol last week, Jimenez deserves some credit for stepping up to his responsibilities in a much more professional way than some of his colleagues: Within about three days, he had gotten an assessment of the damage to tourist sites, facilities, and infrastructure, put together a basic action plan, and communicated it in a reassuring way to tourism stakeholders in Bohol and Cebu.

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It wasn’t an extraordinary performance, but it didn’t have to be; what the tourism industry in the affected areas needed was some practical management direction and effective communication, and Jimenez delivered. Every agency head should have been able to do the same thing, but obviously they did not. Of course, whether or not Jimenez’ Department of Tourism can follow through effectively remains to be seen, but there is no real reason—at least as far as he or the DOT staff is concerned—to assume they will not give it their best effort. That is fortunate for the people of Bohol, where tourism is a critical part of the economy, as it is to a lesser but still very important extent in Cebu.

If the DOT fails, however, Jimenez can and should lay the blame for it on the utter lack of cooperation he is receiving from the rest of the Aquino administration, in particular from the President himself. The success or failure of a tourism industry is largely dependent on image. With the Philippines’ susceptibility to natural and man-made disasters giving it a reputation as a moderately dangerous place to visit, the challenge of selling it as a tourist destination is tough enough without the added headache of regular public relations disasters being created by the President and some of his other key officials.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, President B.S. Aquino 3rd earned nothing but scorn from the online population first by announcing that he would push through with his scheduled visit to South Korea, and then confirming that callousness by being photographed enjoying some humorous moments with Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman amid the wreckage of the Basilica Minore del Sto. Nino in Cebu.

On a side note, of the many dead as a result of the quake, at least eight of those deaths—including a four-year-old child—were reported to have happened when recipients of the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s conditional cash transfer program who had queued up in two different locations to receive their monthly hand-outs were panicked into stampeding when the quake struck. Why Soliman was sightseeing with the boss and evidently enjoying herself is probably something she ought to explain.

President Aquino—or more likely, his Designated Talking Persons—could very well argue that the “poor image” he projected was only considered so by his usual critics here in this country, and that the criticism was not shared by his Korean hosts who, after all, are one of the Philippines’ biggest tourist markets. While it is true no one in Korea publicly criticized his visit—Koreans are too polite for that—the single news story about his visit in The Korea Herald (“Korea, Philippines step up economic cooperation,” October 17) contained this pointedly belittling description of the first meeting between Mr. Aquino and South Korean President Park Geun-hye:

“Park and Aquino had met during the series of multinational summit meetings among the Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] member countries as well as East Asia Summit members in Brunei earlier this month. During their informal encounter there, Aquino had explained his ‘special relations’ with Korea by showing Park a picture of his late father, a former senator who had covered the Korean War in the 1950s as a journalist, imprinted on a Philippine peso bill.”

A more obvious image problem, and one in which one of the President’s favorite subordinates actually outdid the Big Guy in making a lot worse by not knowing what not to say and when not to say it, is the recent reclaiming of the “Worst Airport in the World” tag by Terminal 1 at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (the airport named for the same guy Aquino fils had to point out to South Korea’s president). The dubious honor is bestowed by the website Sleeping in Airports, and is determined by an informal but very large poll conducted among the website’s readers. Although Sleeping in Airports is not exactly considered one of the world’s leading travel sites, the poll is given quite a bit of media mileage by the reaction it receives here, which could be described as “unanimous embarrassed agreement.”

Manila International Airport Authority General Manager Jose Angel Honrado, however, instead of responding with a safe, reassuring statement like, “We are disappointed with the results, but we think we’ve made progress and are continuing our efforts to make improvements,” instead decided a better response would be to call the rest of the world stupid, saying the poll was invalid because it “was not backed by scientific guidelines.”

Tourism is not an economic magic bullet, but with regional integration on the horizon, and the Philippines not making much headway in other areas that will be affected by that, it is the one area in which the country could realize some strong short- and medium-term gains for a relatively affordable resource outlay, particularly in many of the country’s poorest areas. Like it or not, though, potential visitors are not going to forget that there are possible risks to coming here. The most important resource to use in mitigating those concerns is the right image. The wrong image is one of a distracted national leadership unconcerned by large-scale crises, or worse, one that childishly denies problems that are obvious to everyone. After years of lip service to tourism, it’s well past time to take it seriously—and that begins with this country’s leadership acknowledging that it’s what the tourists think of the country, not what certain conceited politicians think of themselves, that will make or break the effort.

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