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Tourism promotion

I am not sure government is the best entity to promote tourism. Marketing activities are best undertaken by those who will profit from it. Nothing like the pursuit of profit to exact the best outcomes from those with skin exposed in the game.

That’s probably why in many countries and places, like Hong Kong, it is the private sector that promotes tourism. Government’s role in marketing tourism is at best tangential, in the same way that government promotes many other industries.

Indeed, I am sure we don’t need a separate Cabinet level department for Tourism. It didn’t use to be that way. Tourism was a bureau under the industry department to set policies and incidentally, help promote tourism in partnership with the private sector.

Tourism became a Cabinet level department because then president Marcos wanted to reward journalist Jose Aspiras, a fellow Ilocano. From what I have heard about “Sunshine Joe,” he was a nice guy and even a good journalist.

But after martial law was declared, I imagine he would rather do something else than be a journalist. If he wanted the job that Kit Tatad had, I am sure he would have had it.

But the journalist in Mr. Aspiras, who once went to jail in defense of journalists’ rights, wouldn’t be able to take it. Better shift to another area like tourism promotion… safe, enjoyable and lucrative.

After EDSA, Tita Cory retained the tourism portfolio. Powerful people inhabited the tourism department. Among their accomplishments was selling prime real estate in San Francisco’s Union Square for no real good reason, for the country, that is.

Today, the only justification for keeping tourism as a Cabinet level department is to enable the tourism secretary to have clear access to other Cabinet members who can contribute to improving the environment for promoting tourism. Running international campaigns should be the private sector’s concern.

To the credit of former tourism secretary Mon Jimenez, he tried to perform the first function as best as he can. He had to do international campaigns expected of him but that’s his cup of tea and didn’t worry him too much.

The tough part of MonJ’s work was convincing then finance secretary
Cesar Purisima to let go of taxes imposed on airlines that only our country has. International airlines were threatening to bypass the Philippines unless that tax was lifted.

MonJ also dealt with one more irritant with the airlines and that had to do with requiring them to pay for the overtime of customs and immigration officers. Nowhere in the world is this done because customs, immigration and quarantine are government functions that must be paid for by government.

Open skies was another of MonJ’s projects. Of course it had to be modified to exclude NAIA because NAIA was just too congested to make that concept work.

Where MonJ miserably failed was getting the DOTC to move fast on airport infrastructure development. In the beginning, MonJ would tell me that the airport congestion problem was a good sign that we are being noticed and visitors are coming. We all know it was way more than that.

MonJ was more successful in getting DPWH under Babes Singson to work on road projects that would make it easier for tourists to get to resorts and tourist spots. But airports remained badly managed and wanting of facilities that would not shame the country to our visitors.

Of course the biggest headache of MonJ was NAIA. But like DOTC which was headed by Mar Roxas and later by Jun Abaya who were closest to P-Noy, the former president was blind to the obvious incompetence of NAIA’s GM. This is one battle MonJ lost.

Under PDutz, tourism officials were appointed whose only claim to their jobs was blood relationship to influential news personalities. That extinguished all hopes that anything good will happen. The fiasco over that plagiarized television commercial is not surprising.

Here is what Manny Gonzalez, someone who has risked his own money on local tourism, had to say about that fiasco:

“Plagiarized or not, this ad is a stupid one. The first rule in conceptualizing any advertisement is to ask: Whom do I want to talk to with this ad? In the McCann case, the answer apparently is: Blind people who watch TV. Smart, very smart.

“It’s no improvement over the It’s More Fun ads that showed primitive or demeaning aspects of our country, and somehow expected a foreign audience to be convinced to come here to see poor Filipinos, half-naked Filipinos, brutal or self-flagellating Filipinos, and scenery that may have been pretty but was notably devoid of any tourists. The best interpretation that could be made was: Come where apparently no other tourist comes. Also very smart.

“That’s why we in Cebu have never relied on the national government tourism authorities. And speaking for Plantation Bay Resort & Spa, I wish they would all just do nothing. ‘Nothing’ would be a big improvement over all the counter-productive, amateurish flailing around that has prevailed all these years that I have been in the tourism business.”

I know it is easy to say that we should just leave tourism promotion to the private sector. Our local tourism industry is more divided than the country and it would be difficult to get consensus on anything. Yet it is not impossible, as the Cebuanos showed when they had the “Island in the Pacific” campaign. Prospects of profit or loss clears the mind.

I think it is criminal to waste a centavo more of our tax money on tourism promotion that should be the concern of the industry that will benefit the most and should invest on it. Even in the area of regulation, it is perhaps best left to the LGUs who should be in a better position to know what the local industry requires.

The attempt to regulate from Manila was an attempt to set national standards. But even here, it turned out the regulators from Manila were still bureaucrats who were clueless about the industry. They hired consultants who tried a one-size-fits-all approach that enraged the entrepreneurs who invested good money in their resorts.

Hopefully, President Duterte will be bold enough to do the right thing and close down the tourism department, create a smaller bureau under the DTI and treat tourism as it would other major industries.

If the Hong Kong Tourist Association can perform tourism promotions functions good enough to generate visitor numbers we can only dream of, why can’t our local industry? Let the Ayalas promote Palawan and their resort. Let Shangri-la promote Mactan, Boracay and their Metro Manila properties. Let Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, SEAir and Air Asia Philippines promote their destinations.

Indeed, the owners of Maribago Bluewater in Mactan and Bohol are now in the midst of spending money to promote not just their resorts but Cebu and Bohol among bloggers.

And that’s another thing. It seems to me that tourism promotion is also very much word of mouth which makes social media ideal. The tourism department should do a more effective campaign using social media which is more targeted and not as expensive.

We are not ready to spend big on promotions. Our media budget is too small to make a difference internationally. Our tourism infrastructure is too wanting of the comforts expected by today’s tourists.

To ask potential visitors to Experience the Philippines the way it is today in a general campaign is to kill the industry very quickly. Focus on the good things we already have in bite size features.

I hope we have learned our lessons well. But I doubt it.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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