The Phl could have been a taste of heaven
(The Philippine Star) - February 8, 2016 - 9:00am

The other day, I was interviewed by Quintin Pastrana in his program “Pundits,” aired on Bloomberg TV Philippines. Quintin is a highly educated young man and the son of Q Pastrana whom I knew during the ‘70s as one of the country’s top advertising executives. The Bloomberg TV program interview was about 10 minutes where we discussed the issues surrounding the 2016 presidential candidates.

During the interview, we talked about the economy and the sectors that are driving growth such as the BPO (business process outsourcing) industry that generated close to $22 billion revenues in 2015 and so far has given jobs to over a million Filipinos, and our overseas Filipino workers whose remittances last year were estimated at $23 billion. Unfortunately, getting lost in the equation is our agriculture sector whose growth has remained flat with a very miniscule 0.11 percent growth in 2015.

Admittedly, the sector has been facing a lot of challenges, among them natural calamities and disasters such as typhoons which wiped out harvests in many areas in the country, and the same goes for the prolonged effects of the El Niño phenomenon which made production very challenging, if not impossible. In fact, rice production has been going down in the past several years, with production for 2015 even lower than the 18.9 million MT output in 2014, according to the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics.

For a country that has been blessed with vast tracts of fertile lands, it is sad the agriculture sector – which accounts for about one-third of the labor force in the county – has not been a driver of economic growth, with poverty incidence among farmers at a high of almost 40 percent. Admittedly, climate change has had a major impact on our agriculture sector, not to mention other risks such as insect/parasite attacks like the “cocolisap” outbreak that infected more than two million coconut trees. But the fact remains that better growth could have been achieved, if support for the sector was prioritized. Among them improved irrigation systems as well as investments on efficient infrastructure not only to enhance productivity, but also to make sure the growth potential even in the most hintermost areas are maximized, according to experts.

But that is all hindsight, and we can’t really turn back the clock to four decades ago. I told Quintin that personally, if we invested on the tourism industry 40 years ago, we would have had a better chance of being a highly developed country. Progress would have been spread out across the country and not concentrated on congested cities like Metro Manila, Cebu, etc. We do have a lot of beautiful places that can compete with the best the world has to offer – and we’re not only talking of Palawan, but places like Donsol or the beautiful beaches in Bohol. The fact is, Filipinos have this natural warmth and charm that make them perfect for the service and hospitality industry.

I always tell my American friends they have a piece of heaven in Hawaii, but it’s also no exaggeration when I say that here in the Philippines, we can give people a taste of heaven given the abundance of natural beauty and resources scattered all over the 7,100 islands in the country. Tourism, after all, is something very unique to each country and we have all the ingredients necessary to become a major tourist destination. Despite all the negative reports about the Philippines, we might still reach the targeted 10 million tourists five years from now – that is, if there is enough support in terms of infrastructure, not to mention facilities – even the most basic ones such as clean comfort rooms.

Some agri-tourism proponents told me this is a growing industry that should be given focus by the next administration as it incorporates two of the sectors that have the potential to drive growth, generate employment and alleviate poverty especially in the countryside.

According to Spire Research (a research and consultancy firm that focuses on emerging markets), agro-tourism has been in existence in the Philippines since the early 90s, but this was mostly confined to small privately managed farms. From the term itself, it’s easy to see that “agro-tourism” combines agriculture and tourism, wherein tourists are willing to pay top dollar to visit a farm, ranch, plantation or other natural sites engaged in farming-related activities where they not only get a taste of farm life, but also the natural healthy produce coming from these sites. Many – even locals – say their agri-tourism experience is cathartic and a good way to de-stress.

“As a tropical country with an abundance of natural resources, biological diversity and a strong cultural heritage, the Philippines is well-positioned for agri-tourism,” Spire Research said, adding the industry has the potential to create more than 14 million jobs – and of course contribute to poverty alleviation efforts – by this year, if reforms are adopted to improve the business environment for both agriculture and tourism even while a balance is created on the development of urban and rural areas.

Pollution and the Chinese New Year

People celebrated the Chinese New Year yesterday to welcome the Year of the Fire Monkey, but it was good to see that many places in China such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou have imposed a ban on fireworks for the festivities. That’s because authorities want to prevent a repeat of what happened last year when air pollution levels reached stratospheric heights due to the smog created by smoke coming from pyrotechnics. According to reports, Chinese New Year is usually the most polluted day in China, and authorities have imposed a 500-yuan ($76) fine on anyone caught lighting up a firecracker. Kung Hei Fat Choy!

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Email: spybits08@gmail.com

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