Setting priorities
- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - June 15, 2018 - 12:00am

Now that she has been overwhelmingly confirmed by the Commission on Appointments, Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo Puyat is starting to set her priorities. There are so many things to do after two non-productive years and there are urgent matters demanding attention right away.

In my conversation with her early this week, I am happy to report that Sec. Berna has her priorities right. “I need airports, roads, infrastructure or how will tourists get here,” was the reaction of the new tourism secretary to my question.

That was exactly what I had been saying way back from the time of Ace Durano. I was critical of the usual emphasis on big foreign junkets even before doing our homework.

Tourism secretaries tend to put the cart before the horse. They forget that promoting a product that is not ready for prime time is a surefire way of damaging it. Bad experiences bring bad memories that are shared over and over again. This is particularly lethal in today’s social media world.

Here is one basic fact: tourism dollars are earned by making access to our beautiful beaches easy and comfortable. Backpackers may love the adventure of dirt roads and sleeping under the stars, but they don’t spend nearly as much as the kind of tourists we should attract.

Transportation Secretary Art Tugade must have read Sec. Berna’s mind. During the last Cabinet meeting, he offered to sit down with her to discuss airports. Maybe Tugade was inspired by the new Mactan airport or by Sec. Berna, but the important thing is that he may finally speed up airport development.

Sec. Berna agrees with what I had previously written about the primary function of the tourism secretary, which is to get the support of her colleagues in the Cabinet who can help her bring in tourists. Other than Tugade, she should meet with DPWH Sec. Mark Villar for those roads that will, make it easier for example to get to Caramoan.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevara is another important Cabinet member because immigration is under him. Frontliners like immigration officers can give visitors a good or bad impression of our country. For that same reason, Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez is important, too, because Customs is under his command.

Now that Sec. Berna has the attention of Sec. Art, she should ask him to give and to commit to her a timetable for the development of the major airports. Only Panglao in Bohol is about ready for delivery. Sec. Art has to move faster on the others.

On top of that priority list should be NAIA modernization. Two very capable consortia are ready to compete for the right to make NAIA tolerable. Sec. Art’s DOTr should not dilly dally in choosing one of the bidders so work can get started.

There is no doubt we will need NAIA for the next 10 to 15 years while new alternatives take shape. NAIA is now operating over its rated capacity. The congestion is causing delayed flights that are very annoying to visitors who end up missing their connecting flights abroad.

NAIA makes more than enough money from landing fees, passenger terminal fees, food, and other concessions, and is turning over excess collections to the Treasury. But we are not getting our money’s worth in terms of services given. The air conditioning systems in the terminals are often out of order because it takes half a year or so to order spare parts.

It is no longer a question of money. The two groups vying for the right to civilize NAIA will spend their own money and take business risk. I am sure if Sec Berna brings this up to President Duterte, he will agree there is no excuse to delay a decision to award the project.

Then there is my favorite — a totally new airport that San Miguel is proposing to build in Bulacan. Funding is not a problem. Indeed, San Miguel may even be paying commitment fees to their bankers for their inability to use allocated funds right away.

Ramon Ang wants to fast track the project so President Duterte can inaugurate the first terminal and two runways before his term of office expires. If they delay approval, that airport will be inaugurated by the next administration, like they did with Mactan Terminal 2.

Given the way political winds blow hot and cold in this country... that may well be Kris Aquino doing the honors. I hope Tugade is horrified enough at the prospect to act now.

Sec. Berna should also ask Sec. Art what he plans to do about the five regional airports, including Davao. Sec. Berna must insist that  the terms of reference for upgrading those airports will not be diluted to accommodate small, but influential, local contractors with no experience on projects of this nature.

Sec. Ben Diokno dropped by the Tuesday Club this week. I asked him why they unbundled a ready to bid project and ended up delaying rehab of those airports. He said they suspected the TOR would benefit Ayala.

What an excuse! If that’s the intention, P-Noy’s boys would have awarded it before bowing out. Besides, top conglomerates with clout are competing for it too. MPIC was bidding, in partnership with Aeroport de Paris, Megawide was bidding and so was Aboitiz.

I am not fond of Ayala, but what’s wrong if Ayala won an honest bidding? The objective should be to get an upgraded airport, and because Ayala has a reputation to protect, the work will be done properly. I can’t believe Sec. Ben and his Cabinet colleagues had been this petty.

Truthfully, the Senate hearing on it revealed Tugade unbundled that package due to strong political interference, mainly to allow their pet contractors to bid. That, boys and girls, is why Build Build Build is still all in the mind of Ben Diokno and not rolled out where we can see it.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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