YEARENDER: Tourism on track to sustainability
Boracay after re-opening in October.
YEARENDER: Tourism on track to sustainability
Catherine Talavera (The Philippine Star) - January 2, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — The tourism sector emerged as one of the top newsmakers last year. From the sudden closure of a top tourist destination to controversies surrounding the Department of Tourism (DOT) and the eventual change of its leadership, it was indeed a tough year for the industry.

But despite these challenges, both private and public stakeholders agree that the sector is now headed on the right track as it pushes for sustainability.

“As far as overall performance of the tourism sector is concerned, I would like to think that it has been good considering what we have had to face last year,” Tourism Congress of the Philippines president Jose Clemente III told The STAR.

“We had a change of leadership at the DOT, the closure of Boracay and the ongoing assessment of other destinations, it seems that we are on the right track,” he added.

Boracay closure

In April, President Duterte ordered the six-month closure of Boracay from tourists after calling it a “cesspool.” The closure began on April 26, just three weeks after the President’s announcement.

This decision was met with criticisms due to the lack of concrete plans for the rehabilitation of the island, especially with the displacement of workers.

Clemente identified Boracay’s sudden closure as one factor that made an impact on the tourism industry last year.

“Many factors were not considered when the island was closed to begin rehabilitation and it has affected stakeholders and their employees severely. It could have been done in a much better and well-planned way,” Clemente said.

Teo resigns amid P60 million ad deal

Barely a week after Boracay’s closure, the tourism sector made headlines due to controversies surrounding a P60 million ad placement deal the DOT made with PTV-4, which surfaced due to a report by the Commission on Audit (COA).

The ad placement was made on a show produced by then tourism secretary Wanda Teo’s brother Ben Tulfo’s Bitag Media Unlimited Inc. (BMUI).

Teo claimed she was not aware the ad would be aired on her brother’s show. She soon after resigned amid this issue.

Puyat takes over and cleans house

On the same day Teo handed in her resignation letter, Malacañang announced that President Duterte has appointed then agriculture undersecretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat as the new DOT Secretary.

Upon her new leadership, Puyat ordered incumbent undersecretaries and assistant secretaries to submit courtesy resignations. She only retained one undersecretary namely, Benito Bengzon Jr., who has been a career official at the agency with more than 30 years of service.

She also sought the help of the COA to review all DOT contracts to make sure everything is transparent and has undergone proper bidding procedures.

Among the projects under review is the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB)’s Buhay Carinderia project, which put then TPB COO Cesar Montano in the headlines as reports claimed he issued three advanced checks amounting to P320 million in favor of the organizer and proponent of the event.

Like Teo, Montano soon after resigned from his post due to this controversy.

Boracay reopening

The Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force (BIATF) soft opened Boracay on Oct. 26 after six months of rehabilitation. Puyat emphasized that this was only the first phase of Boracay’s two-year rehabilitation program.

While the country initially gained criticisms for the closure of the island, Puyat said Boracay is fast regaining international attention as the island is being cited as a model for sustainable tourism.

“Everybody is saying they are amazed by the Philippines. In fact, other countries are visiting us. We are really a model for sustainable tourism... (Boracay’s rehabilitation) is just the beginning. We want all major tourism destinations to practice sustainable tourism,” Puyat said in a CNN International report.

Despite its closure, Boracay was still voted as one of the best islands in Asia according to readers of international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler.

Foreign arrivals?still positive 

Based on latest data from the DOT, foreign arrivals from January to October posted a 7.43 percent increase to 5.88 million from 5.47 million in the same period the prior year.

“Despite the challenges that we faced with the closure of Boracay, the performance has still been very good,” Tourism Undersecretary and spokesperson Benito Bengzon Jr. said.

Bengzon emphasized that the growth rate is still higher than the global average of about three to five percent.

“So we are still above the curve despite the challenges, we have managed to keep ourselves afloat and I would really give credit to the support of the private sector who have been very creative in their marketing and promotions. They were very quick to divert the traffic to other destinations. They were quick to come up with value for money packages,” Bengzon said.

While there is still an increase in foreign arrivals, Puyat, however, said she is not confident of meeting the 7.4 million foreign arrivals target last year under the National Tourism Development Plan (NTDP). She said the figures are likely to fall between seven million to 7.2 million.

Push for sustainability

With the rehabilitation of Boracay and the task force’s continued crackdown of tourist destinations with environmental violations, 2018 was the year the Philippine government made its push for sustainability known.

Puyat repeatedly emphasized that Boracay is just the beginning of the country’s move toward sustainable and responsible tourism.

“Boracay is our stepping stone. Our experience in Boracay is a case study that shows how important sustainability is for community development. Lessons learned here are invaluable chapters to our story of building a culture of sustainable tourism in the Philippines. We want our people and our tourists to have a sense of responsible tourism,” Puyat earlier said.

Fernando Roxas, executive director of the Asian Institute of Management – Andrew Tan Center for Tourism, emphasized the importance of the government showing that it had the political will to close down the most popular destination because of sustainability concerns.

“This sends very positive signals to the market that we value the quality of the experience we promise our visitors and forewarns tourism establishments that non-compliance to existing laws and regulations will be dealt severely,” Roxas said.

Colliers International Philippines research manager Joey Roi Bondoc echoed Roxas’ sentiments as he said the full rehabilitation of Boracay is important in sending a strong message to tourism stakeholders.

“There should be a balance between the private operators’ goal of generating businesses and the local stakeholders’ objective of sustaining and preserving the country’s rich natural resources,” Bondoc said.

“We believe that the government’s drive for a sustainable tourism bodes well for the Philippine leisure sector in general and the impact should spillover to support facilities such as hotels. The push for sustainability should sustain the long-term growth of Philippine tourism and this, in turn, should entice more hotel investments in country,”he added.

Tourism on the right track

While the tourism sector had a rocky first half of the year due to controversies it was plagued with, the sector has somehow witnessed renewed optimism as people are beginning to see a fresh start with the country’s move towards sustainable tourism.

“I think what is important here is that with the experience in Boracay, the other destinations are beginning to see the importance of ensuring that we maintain an optimum balance between a certain level of tourism activity and making sure that we preserve the environment. And this is going to be the overarching approach of the DOT for this year and the years to come,” Bengzon said.

“Maybe now is the best time for some of the stakeholders realize that we cannot just be about the headcount. We need to make sure that we make the efforts to tourism development and promotions are sustainable in the long run,” he added.

Roxas said the DOT is on the right track as it is putting more emphasis on developing sustainable tourism destinations and less emphasis on marketing events and promotions.

“More needs to be done and the DOT will need cooperation from the various government agencies and the private sector to establish the country as a leading sustainable tourism destination,” Roxas said.

“I believe the momentum is there and as far as market demand is concerned, I am confident the sector will continue to be one of the rising pillars supporting the economy,” he added.

This sentiment was echoed by Clemente.

“The image of the Philippines is quite good right now for the most part and demand for the country is very high based on our talks with our clients and partners. If everything holds, 2019 should be a good year,” Clemente concluded.

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