Put tourism on priority
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - September 19, 2018 - 12:00am

In the wake of our serious trade deficit that’s causing problems with our current account and accelerating the peso’s depreciation, there have been suggestions that we put more than our usual effort in promoting tourism. There are countries and places in the world that thrive on foreign exchange earned from tourism.

That goes along the lines of an e-mail I received from one of our top industrialists two weeks ago: “tourism drives the countryside… people make food… people drive cars... it forces infrastructure to be constructed in the right places… it even forces the quality of water to go up.”

“When you have guests in your own home, everyone’s attitude changes. It is the same for a country. New people are met… And minds are widened…”

It is true we should grow tourism as another important dollar-earning leg of our economy to complement OFW remittances and BPOs. As a job generator, it is an industry that does not require people to leave their hometowns. Outside of some basic training, it does not require highly specialized skills.

But having said all that, tourism cannot be expected to quickly deliver because we have some very high hurdles to clear. On top of the list is flight availability. Our being an archipelago makes easy air connectivity a must for tourists to consider visiting.

Put together the existing passenger capacity of all our airports able to take in international visitors and it is not too far from the 45 million passengers a year that NAIA is rated for but now exceeding. Only the Cebu Mactan airport seems to have an active plan to take in more passengers.

Our airports have a bad reputation we haven’t really addressed. The recent Xiamen Airlines accident also showed how inept our airport managers are. That’s not how to attract tourists in this era of social media. 

DOTr must fast track modernization of all our airports. We must professionalize airport management by hiring only experienced staff, not political protégés. Cebu-Mactan is the only local airport whose general manager has extensive airport management experience. 

Then we must educate our people to be tourist friendly. We pride ourselves to be nice and hospitable to guests. But crimes against tourists have become rampant and that gets told and retold in social media enough times to scare visitors away.

Two baggage screeners of DOTr’s Office for Transport Security (OTS) were recently caught pilfering cash from the bag of a visitor from Taiwan. The culprits are now facing charges in court but the damage is done.

DOTr, under Sec Arthur Tugade, should be more meticulous in checking the background of their frontline security staff. Better still, minimize the number of times visitors interact with live agents of government. Explore possibility of  using robots to screen bags.

It isn’t just OTS screeners that can give our image a black eye. Taxi and other drivers picking up passengers from our airports have been damaging the reputation of Filipinos for years. Our officials have apparently not sufficiently addressed the problem.

I recall that when a major international conference was about to happen in Cebu, local officials organized training programs for all taxi drivers. The idea was to tell them how important it is for our guests to be treated well.

The taxi drivers were encouraged to be good examples of Filipino hospitality, always ready to assist visitors. Of course they were told not to take advantage of visitors and to charge them only the legal fare.

I recall that the program worked. Indeed, months after the conference, Cebu taxi drivers became known as honest and helpful, characteristics that hardly describe taxi drivers in Metro Manila. I don’t know if it is still that way in Cebu but programs like this should be regularly conducted by DOT and LTFRB nationwide.

Beyond training of public utility drivers, the tourism department should spend some of its media advertising budget to roll out a campaign to encourage all Filipinos, specially those in the tourism industry, to treat our visitors with honesty and respect.

We need to drive into the consciousness of every Filipino how important tourists are to our economy. The industry’s growth depends on how we treat our visitors. Indeed, mass media should be asked to participate in a hospitality campaign. Maybe programs like Probinsyano should take up that message too.

We need to spend time and money on such a campaign before we start spending money telling potential foreign visitors it is more fun in the Philippines. Given our current international reputation, we have to reassure them it is safe to visit.

Of course there are cities abroad with worse reputations for crime against tourists like Rome, Paris and Madrid. Bag snatchers, dishonest taxi drivers and pick pockets are common enough to be considered ordinary risks visitors take.

But these cities have such strong magnets for visitors that we don’t have. They have history, culture and very popular tourist sites. Visitors shrug off the possibility of being a victim in these cities but will not tolerate it here. That’s just how the world is configured.

And since most of the more interesting places for tourists to visit here are in the countryside, the tourism department must make sure there are adequate emergency medical facilities quickly available.

Boracay became a big tourist destination yet we never thought of putting a clinic there that could stabilize a heart attack victim prior to airlifting to Cebu, Iloilo or Manila. Siargao? Ask Karen Davila!

I have written for years that the tourism department has a lot of homework to do before marketing abroad. Of course we need international visibility that the More Fun in the Philippines campaign provides. But let us first make sure we are ready to receive the visitors and guarantee their fun and safety while they are here.

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

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