• Tourism: Mortgaging the country’s economic future

    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    This past Monday, Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez Jr. made his pitch for fast-tracking tourism development in the Philippines while delivering the keynote speech at the combined celebration of the 115th anniversary of the Siege of Baler and the 12th annual Philippine-Spanish Friendship Day in Baler, Aurora.

    “We believe tourism is the shortest path to inclusive growth. Tourism provides jobs, spurs businesses and connects many industries,” Jimenez said during his speech. Jimenez made reference to the advanced state of tourist development in Spain, pointing out that the good relations between the two countries would give the Philippines an excellent opportunity to learn from the Spanish experience.

    In spite of the skepticism—some of it justified—with which Secretary Jimenez is usually regarded by the media and the public, I like the guy; he is one of the few bright spots in the otherwise disappointing crowd of officials the Aquino administration has inflicted on the country. Mon Jimenez’s background is in marketing, and he applies those skills with a single-minded enthusiasm that deserves at least a little credit. His efforts are not always effective or particularly well-timed—his appearance in Bohol last year before the dust from the destructive earthquake hardly settled struck many people as a bit insensitive—but no one can say Jimenez is not doing his job. He is the Secretary of Tourism, and he’s going to secretary the hell out of it, by God.

    Unfortunately, the policy gospel for which Secretary Jimenez is an effective evangelist is not the best approach to tourism for the Philippines, and the irony is that Spain, the country Jimenez looks to as a source of knowledge, probably knows that better than any other place on Earth. A recent article in The Guardian (UK) detailed a not entirely unexpected problem being experienced by the city of Barcelona, Spain: Too many tourists. Over the past 15 to 20 years, Barcelona has pursued an aggressive tourism policy not unlike that espoused by the Philippines, which can be described in simple terms as “get as many visitors to come here as soon as possible.”

    The opportunity to pursue that initiative was presented, in part, by Spain’s famous Costa Brava reaching the end stages of its product life cycle. From the end of World War II until the mid-1990s, Costa Brava was the hot destination for tourists from all over Europe, but then it rapidly began to degrade as overcrowding and aging infrastructure eroded its popular appeal. Cities like Madrid and Barcelona, eager to take up the slack, began promoting themselves more aggressively, with spectacular results: In 1990, there were just under 1.7 million tourist arrivals in Barcelona; in 2012, even with Spain in the throes of a serious economic recession, that figure reached 7.4 million.

    Many of those tourists arrive by cruise ship; up to six ships per day make port calls at Barcelona, delivering up to 30,000 visitors who spend roughly three million euros. While the citizens of Barcelona express appreciation for the huge economic boost the cruise trade provides, an increasing number of them are beginning to complain that they have lost their own city. In order to cater to the tourist arrivals, much of what makes Barcelona, “Barcelona” has been lost; the city’s commercial district has been transformed from its traditional mix of shops, cafes, and markets to trendy, more “tourist-friendly” branded establishments. In some areas, real estate development of hotels and upscale short-term housing has displaced residents. Many in Barcelona fear that if the process is not stopped, “our city will become a theme park no one can actually live in,” according to one local activist quoted by The Guardian article.

    And, as happened on the Costa Brava, the artifice will eventually overwhelm the tourist appeal of the local culture and environment, and tourists will begin to look elsewhere. We may be seeing the process already beginning in Boracay, which, although still a popular destination, is increasingly being snubbed by tourists due to its overcrowding and over-development.

    Once the tourism product lifestyle reaches its inevitable end, local communities are left in the lurch; empty hotels, shops and restaurants developed and built for tourists, and infrastructure that is not only in the wrong place but begins to deteriorate because neither the funds nor the need for its proper upkeep exist any longer, are all very poor additions to a local economy. The affected community is depressed, often more than it was in its pre-tourism state, and while the fact that a life cycle applies to tourism “products” does provide some hope that revitalization is possible, the experience in places where that has occurred (some towns along New Jersey’s Atlantic shore in the United States, for example) suggests it takes about a generation for that to happen.

    The short-term perspective of the current approach to Philippine tourism (there are virtually no initiatives or forecasts beyond 2016) might be successful in boosting the industry quickly, but in doing so mortgages the economic future of tourism communities. To the extent that he has influence over the broader approach to tourism policy—an extent that may actually be limited, given that the physical development of tourism infrastructure and destinations relies on other agencies and the private sector—Secretary Jimenez should prioritize sustainability over volume. That means extending tourism plans by 20 or 30 years; matching target numbers to stages of development, and designing those developmental stages to be re-purposed effectively after the tourists disappear.

    After all, those who need to be “included” in the “inclusive growth” Jimenez and his boss in Malacañang say tourism can provide will still need to be included, whether there are any tourists or not; there is no point where policymakers can declare the job done. The present approach, while admirable for its fervor, suggests the government is not clear on that point, and that’s something that needs to change if tourism is to be truly successful in the Philippines.



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