Single destination
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 24, 2016 - 9:00am

What we have failed to do on our own so far, perhaps a 10-nation grouping will achieve for us: tourism numbers that will match those of our Southeast Asian neighbors.

The final figures aren’t in yet, but it looks like tourism arrivals last year in our country barely hit five million, despite the yearlong events leading up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in November. Achieving the government’s goal of 10 million in the year that President Aquino is stepping down now appears dim.

It’s good to set targets, and Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez has made full use of his expertise, which is marketing, to push Philippine travel destinations. But as I have written in the past, selling the country to foreign tourists is hobbled by several key problems, among which is the lack of a conductor of sorts to get everyone on board.

The conductor should be able to make tourism a lynchpin of economic growth and job generation. Considering the turf mentality in our society, the only official who can serve as tourism conductor is the president of the republic. Only the president can order Cabinet members and persuade local government executives to do their part in increasing tourism. Jimenez can keep bewailing the inadequate tourism infrastructure plus crummy airports and land transportation, but the guys in charge of those areas aren’t going to take orders from him.

Only P-Noy can do that, but he probably has enough on his plate to take on the job of tourism czar. Besides, some of those in charge of tourism infrastructure are members of his inner circle who can do no wrong.

Perhaps “Visit ASEAN @50” will bring the nation closer to achieving its tourism goals.

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“Visit ASEAN @50” will market Southeast Asia as a single travel destination, in line with the birth of the ASEAN Economic Community last month. To be launched this March in Berlin, “Visit ASEAN @50” will be in full swing next year when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations turns 50.

Apart from a common logo, the grouping is aiming to adopt within five years a common visa similar to the Schengen visa of the European Union.

There will also be greater air connectivity and opportunities for upgrading infrastructure. A common regional tourism standards certification system could end the ongoing dispute over the hotel star rating system in our country.

We should be among the most enthusiastic in this regional tourism campaign. The country has suffered from being situated apart from the main Southeast Asian island grouping. Travelers like visiting several countries in one vacation. They can hop from one ASEAN state to an adjacent one, from Vietnam to Cambodia and Thailand and now to Myanmar, or from Bali and Jakarta to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. But they will think twice before boarding another flight of three to four hours to the Philippines, especially if they have to wait at the NAIA for connecting flights to destinations such as Boracay. If they are truly unlucky, their flights could sit on the tarmac for up to two hours, waiting for an all-clear to let passengers disembark.

The other ASEAN capitals benefit from air connectivity, while we lack direct flights to too many countries. Malaysia and Singapore also benefit from being part of the Commonwealth, so they are top destinations for Aussies, Brits, Canadians, Indians, Kiwis and the other members of the 53-nation Commonwealth with a population of 2.1 billion.

We haven’t maximized our position as a gateway to Southeast Asia from the Pacific. We’re the only ASEAN state with direct flights to Canada. We can also build on our strong historic and cultural ties with Spain and Mexico to attract the Latin American market.

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In 2013, ASEAN had 102.2 million tourist arrivals, accounting for a hefty 12.3 percent of regional GDP. The figure rose to 105 million in 2014.

Of that number, the Philippines drew only 4.83 million visitors in 2014, generating $4.4 billion, with over a million of the travelers coming from South Korea, followed by the US and Japan.

In 2014, travel and tourism contributed P1.4 trillion to the Philippine economy, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. In terms of direct contributions, the amount is P533 billion, accounting for 4.2 percent of gross domestic product. Of 184 countries assessed by the council, the Philippines ranked 69th in terms of tourism contributions to GDP.

Clearly there’s a wide room for growth. Among the five founding members of ASEAN, we’re the laggard in tourism. In 2014, despite political upheaval, Thailand earned a whopping $38.4 billion in tourism revenue from 24.77 million travelers, ahead of Malaysia’s $16.69 billion from 27.4 million visitors. Malaysia did well despite two major air disasters involving its flag carrier, although many of its visitors were those who simply crossed the border from adjacent Singapore, and then went back to the city-state at day’s end.

Singapore saw a 3.1 percent decline in 2014 arrivals, but that was still 15.1 million travelers, contributing $17.4 billion to the economy. Indonesia, which aimed to attract 10 million tourists by 2015 and 20 million by 2019, drew 9.44 million international visitors in 2014, earning $10.69 billion.

Among the non-ASEAN founding members, Vietnam reported 7.87 million international arrivals, Cambodia drew 4.5 million while Laos had 4.16 million in 2014. Myanmar welcomed 3.08  million visitors in 2014 – the ASEAN state registering the biggest surge that year.

Under a 10-year plan unveiled together with “Visit ASEAN @50,” the grouping hopes to make tourism account for 15 percent of the regional economy by 2025, when tourist arrivals in Southeast Asia are expected to hit 152 million.

By 2030, ASEAN hopes to account for a fourth of a projected 1.8 global tourist arrivals. That’s about 450 million. How many can we draw to the Philippines?

ASEAN integration and group promotion will be good for countries such as ours with limited tourism marketing budgets. But integration will also emphasize the regional laggards. We must make sure we won’t be among them.


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