Crisis in tourism

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

In this peak season for tourism, the travel industry is hurting badly. The kidnapping and beheading of tourists as well as terrorist threats in what used to be considered safe travel destinations like Bohol are taking their toll on the industry.

Earthquakes and aftershocks have compounded the problem. In Batangas, resorts in the diving areas of Anilao and Mabini stood empty during Holy Week.

Prospective travelers in fact have been expressing concern since last year about security issues in the Philippines amid the brutal conduct of the drug war. Not all the concerns, relayed to diplomatic missions in Manila, are over human rights issues; most are about personal safety, especially for travelers with children.

President Duterte should give priority to tourism as an engine of economic growth. And he should order the heads of relevant agencies to go on crisis mode amid the spate of travel advisories issued by the country’s top travel markets.

Yesterday South Korea joined Australia, Europe, Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the United States in issuing a travel advisory, with the Korean alert focused on Bohol.

South Korea is the Philippines’ largest source of tourists, accounting for about a million travelers annually, or a fourth of last year’s total arrivals. We could have drawn more, but violent attacks on Koreans in the Philippines in recent years prevented what could have been robust growth in arrivals. The kidnapping and gruesome murder of businessman Jee Ick-joo by anti-narcotics police right inside Camp Crame further dampened Korean enthusiasm for visiting the Philippines.

We should be confronting this crisis decisively especially because safer travel destinations with similar tourist attractions beckon in Southeast Asia. As I noted during my visit to Hanoi last week, Vietnam got over 10 million tourists last year – double the number in the Philippines. One of Vietnam’s attractions has to be its ability to ensure the safety of visitors.

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Alejandra “Dading” Clemente, Rajah Tours Philippines chair and grand dame of the industry, is urging the Department of Tourism to launch “a very aggressive PR campaign” overseas to counteract the impact of the travel advisories and negative news about the country. The DOT has a Special Contingency Fund for emergencies and crises “like what we are having now,” Clemente points out.

She told me yesterday that perceptions of the country particularly in its major markets are “so negative, resulting in the continuous cancellation of bookings.” 

Unless this is dealt with quickly, she warned, it would mean “empty rooms in most if not all hotels in Manila and resorts in major destinations.”

* * *

Clemente wrote a letter the other day to Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo, expressing her concern and suggesting an industry dialogue to tackle the crisis.

“We wish to convey to you the feeling of apprehension of the private sector of the tourism industry,” Clemente wrote, adding that the travel advisories were starting to take their toll on industry players.

She wrote: “Recent events have placed the Philippines in a negative light as a tourism destination. The full blown media reporting on the beheading of tourists and other serious terrorist activities in our major destinations such as Bohol, Cebu and other places in Central Visayas has resulted in the perception that the Philippines has become a dangerous place for tourists. We have been experiencing cancellations of bookings for incentive and big groups from major markets namely, Japan, US and Europe. If this deteriorating situation is not addressed immediately, it may adversely affect the flow of tourism arrivals into the country.”

Clemente called for statements from the DOT “of a more reassuring and more effective tone to convey a strong message.”

“Government and private sector need to act fast to arrest this very alarming situation,” Clemente wrote.

* * *

While we are faced with this crisis, Vietnam is sprinting past us. I’ve been told that European investors are increasingly picking Vietnam over the Philippines. Foreign investors leaving China because of rising production costs are also relocating to Vietnam.

Hanoi sees the value of tourism in driving economic growth especially in the countryside. Jobs are created right in Vietnamese hometowns and they need not leave their country to find decent employment. The government provides the needed infrastructure such as roads.

Our tour guide in Vietnam, whose English name is Rocky, is 28 and the father of a seven-month-old daughter. He took us to his three-story home, still under construction, in Hai Duong City on our way back from Halong Bay. The house was given to him and his wife by his parents-in-law. The house, with an area of 125 square meters on every floor, is made of good-quality materials and sits on about a hectare of farmland that the parents-in-law planted to flowers.

Demand in Hai Duong alone for the fragrant lilies and colorful gerbera is enough to keep the flower farm in business. But Rocky, after being exposed to foreign cultures in Hanoi, wants to set up a coffee shop-restaurant whose ingredients are sourced straight from the farm. He likes to cook, he likes coffee and green tea which is grown on the farm, and his wife, 27, is an accountant who can handle the financial side of the business.

The farm will be a perfect site for a restaurant because the government is building a new road right in front of the house. Rocky, who majored in tourism and studied English to enhance his skills in the travel industry, said Hai Duong became progressive after a highway was built to connect the city to markets and tourist destinations.

His optimism reminds me of the spirit that permeated young Chinese as their country was rocketing on its way to becoming the world’s second largest economy. Soon the Chinese replaced their bicycles with BMWs, Audis and Tuaregs.

Rocky, who still doesn’t know how to drive, told me he hoped to replace his motorcycle with a car. Especially because he wants to have three children. Unlike China, Vietnam puts no limits on the number of children that its citizens who don’t work for the government can have.

Rocky is proud to have served as a guide and interpreter when “Kong: Skull Island” was filmed in Halong Bay. He showed my mother and me his photos with the director and star of the latest installment of “King Kong.”

Tourism can also promote a country as a site for filmmaking, which can generate jobs and livelihood opportunities. Our Hollywood-mad nation should be leading in this area; “Skull Island” could have been filmed in Palawan.

Instead what we get are negative travel advisories.


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