ON the very last day of March, just as the first big ‘traveling holiday’ was getting underway, the Oxford Business Group published an article about the Philippines’ tourism prospects for the year, concluding that they were well on track despite some areas needing attention.
Oxford evidently based its assessment on how impressive it found the Department of Tourism’s plan for this year.
The report lists a number of efforts that the DOT helps will boost visitor numbers, including declaring 2015 “Visit the Philippines Year.” The efforts involve a shift from a national advertising campaign to promoting specific destinations such as regions and cities like Cebu and Davao, making the most of some 35 major events in the country this year—the APEC series of meetings comprises most of them—to, as one DOT official is quoted as saying, “demonstrate the existing MICE [meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions] infrastructure in multiple destinations.”
The Oxford article also highlights the expected gains from the Asean integration, which in the air transport sector involves moves toward more open skies protocols and streamlining visa and immigration rules for Asean visitors.
The article does mention some potential trouble spots, such as the impact of foreign governments’ travel warnings—one issued by Beijing last September is blamed for cutting the number of Chinese visitors to Boracay by more than half—and the persistent underdevelopment of tourism-related infrastructure, particularly airports; although it adds the hopeful note that attention to the latter “is beginning to ramp up” and will hopefully bear fruit soon.
To give some sense of dimension to the tourism issue, last year the Philippines received 4.83 million visitors, 3.25 percent more than the 4.68 million who arrived in 2013, but short of the DOT’s target of 5 million. Revenue attributable to tourism reached $4.84 billion, about 10 percent more than the $4.4 billion collected the previous year.
For 2015, the DOT has lowered its original target of 6 million visitors to a “more practical” range of 5 million to 5.5 million, which would result in about $5 billion in tourism revenue for the year. But even those expectations are likely to be unrealistic.
The biggest challenge the DOT will face is the issue of security. Mindanao generally, and western Mindanao in particular, has been the subject of foreign travel warnings for years but those are likely to be mild suggestions compared with how foreign governments will react to a new outbreak of unrest in the coming months.
At this point, any outcome of the debate over the Bangsamoro Basic Law, or “Babala” as it has come to be known, will result in some degree of violence. Whether the law dies in Congress, passes Congress but is stopped by the Supreme Court, or passes into law, some parties (all of whom are heavily armed) will be aggrieved by the result. It is conceivable—it has happened before—that violence could spill out of the region in the form of attacks in Manila or other places. Even if all that is more a matter of perception rather than reality, the crisis over the partitioning of Mindanao touched off by the Mamasapano Massacre on January 25 could not have happened at a worse time than when the rest of the world is becoming increasingly alarmed at growing Islamic-related violence in different parts of the world.
The other major security issue is a political problem rather than an actual threat to life and limb. Beginning in 2011, the Aquino Administration inexplicably decided to provoke a confrontation in the dispute with China over sovereignty in the South China Sea; the decision of the UN tribunal to whom the Philippine government elevated its complaint about Chinese encroachment is expected to be announced in the next couple of months. If the UN tribunal rules against China, as it is widely expected to do, the flow of Chinese visitors is likely to slow to a trickle, if not stop altogether. If, on the other hand, the tribunal rules in China’s favor, the backlash against all things Chinese in this country is likely to be seen as another security risk for which a new “travel warning” is in order.
The upcoming Asean integration may have some positive impact, but Oxford’s summary (and by inference, the DOT’s planning) probably overestimates it. Most of the changes intended to make it easier for people to move around the region are from a passenger’s perspective cosmetic changes to already fairly liberal rules, although they will result in some significant regulatory changes behind the scenes.
The Philippines will not see 5 million tourists this year; it may very well approach that number again as it has in the past two years, but there is too much working against the DOT’s plans—and that does not even take into consideration the constant threat of typhoons (or if you live around Metro Manila, any vigorous rain shower) or the occasional earthquake.
That’s not to say the DOT shouldn’t give it their best effort anyway—very little of what handicaps its planning is actually the DOT’s fault—but the department owes it to tourism stakeholders to be realistic.