Going overboard on a sustainable tourism promise
BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - February 21, 2019 - 12:00am

Retaining the Philippine tourism campaign slogan, “It’s more fun in the Philippines,” is a good idea since it is a handle that doesn’t seem to be worn out yet. There’s no sense in paying good money for a new advertising slogan when the old one is still serviceable.

On the other hand, let’s be careful about over-promising on a “refreshed” campaign that would focus on such lofty words as “sustainable tourism” when we have only the six-month closure and rehabilitation of Boracay Island to back up our claim.

Let’s face it. The Philippines is far from being the ideal go-to vacation country of international tourists, much less a “premiere sustainable tourism destination.” The potential is there, but there’s loads of work to be done to get there.

Losing Sagada’s charm

Take, for example, Sagada, a small town in the Cordillera Mountains located north of the Philippines that is home to less than 12,000 people. Over the years, it has continued to attract a growing number of local and foreign tourists despite the hours-long, dusty road trip on narrow mountain roads.

Not only are the hanging coffins on cliff walls a popular attraction, but an exploration of the underground caves with their spectacular rock formations and pristine water pools have earned it popularity among back-packers seeking adventure in nature’s raw and wild setting.

Sadly, Sagada is being threatened by a deluge of tourists that have become unmanageable because of the lack of resources by the local tourism office and government. During the recent peak summer months, tourists wanting to take tours had to be turned away because there were just too many.

Worse, the town has been swamped with more garbage that visitors have left behind, putting a strain on the local sewerage and disposal system. The once-clean air of Sagada becomes polluted by an influx of vehicles that ferry tourists to the many attractions that the village offers.

Clearly, this is not the kind of sustainable tourism we want the world to see. Here could be a far worse accusation of false advertising, more humiliating than having been found copying branding logos and videos from campaigns of other countries in the distant past.

Saying ‘No, thank you’

Being a “premiere sustainable tourism destination,” as the Department of Tourism (DOT) has announced, is something to aspire for, but let us lay the rules first that would guide the local tourism efforts in destinations that visitors would want to go.

It’s ironical to see our local government officials and Sagada residents trying to cope with a barrage of tourists that will, in the end, only sully the attractions that beckon them. Closing Sagada to tourists, thus, could become a very viable option if extreme action is needed.

Let us put to good use the lessons we learned from Boracay, an ecosystem that needs to be protected to keep it in sustainable form. If we need to say up to how many guests can stay at any given time, or ban cigarette smoking and drinking.

In Sagada, if the hostels accredited by the DOT cannot be responsible for properly taking of their guests’ sanitation needs through proper treatment facilities, then they too should not be allowed to operate. This is what we did in Boracay.

What’s fun and not fun

Destinations in the Philippines that offer nature’s unspoiled features – clear waters, powder-sand beaches, fresh air – continue to be the main reasons for tourists to visit, and revisit. Our churches, ethnic tribes, and Spanish, American and Chinese heritage are also expressed motives.

However, most of the foreign tourists, as soon as they touch down in any of the country’s major airports, want to get away quickly from the city’s pollution and urban poverty. There’s also the reported rampant crime and widespread corruption that turn off tourists.

Travel to popular off-grid destinations like Boracay or the outskirts of Cebu Island are a challenge because of poorly coordinated transfer travel arrangements, spotty internet access, and sub-standard facilities and accommodation. Tour packages are also not well organized.

The good side would be Filipinos’ renowned courteousness and hospitality, a passable knowledge of the English language, and the abundance of good food and merchandise (even if made in China or Thailand) that are cheap.

For all these, the Philippines is still understandably a laggard in Asia, even in the ASEAN, in terms of attracting tourists and tourist spending. On the other hand, our arrival numbers have been steadily growing as our tourism officials strive to improve its programs.

Finding the right time

Branding is important in any promotional and advertising campaign, but it must foremost be backed by substance. The Philippines can get away with brandishing how much fun it is to visit our islands and staying with friendly Filipinos, but to claim that we are vanguards of sustainable tourism is stretching things a bit too much.

The World Tourism Organization has a good definition: Sustainable tourism is one that establishes a suitable balance between the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and plays an important role in conserving biodiversity. It attempts to minimize its impact on the environment and local culture so that it will be available for future generations, while contributing to generate income, employment, and the conservation of local ecosystems.

Let’s get the house in order first. Only when the basic structures of a truly sustainable tourism are firmly on the ground can we, without fear of embarrassment, claim to be forerunners of sustainable tourism.

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