In defense of Secretary Romulo-Puyat
THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - October 2, 2019 - 12:00am

A few weeks ago, the House of Repetitive temporarily suspended its plenary deliberations to give way to presidential son and Davao City Congressman Paolo Duterte. In his manifestation, the young Duterte slammed Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat for her questionable working style and character.

The congressman said his office received numerous complaints about the Secretary’s management style and the manner by which she handles government contracts. Curiously, the congressman did not identify who the complainants were, the nature of the complaints, which government contracts he was referring to, nor the other “concerns” he had about the DOT. He did express his dismay, however, on his father finding out about his tiff with the Secretary.

The Congressman’s accusations were serious but his discourse was vague. It left pundits like me wondering what this was all about. He casted doubt on the integrity of the Secretary without explaining the circumstances. I thought that this was utterly unfair to the Secretary.

Still, I did my due diligence. I looked into the contracts entered into by the Department of Tourism (DOT) to validate if indeed, all contracts conformed to the prescribed legal processes. This was what I found.

Since Sec. Romulo-Puyat took the helm of the DOT 17 months ago, the DOT engaged the services of several creative and ad booking agencies. Among them were the appointment of BBDO Guerrero for the refreshed branding and content of the “It’s more fun in the Philippines” campaign. The appointment of BBDO Guerrero again for a public relations offensive. The appointment of the DDB Worldwide Communications Group to spearhead the campaign on responsible tourism. The appointment of Touch XDA as DOT’s media buying and placement agency.

In every instance, I found no irregularities as each engagement was done in full compliance with the government procurement reform law and applicable rules.

Other contracts entered into under Secretary Romulo-Puyat involved co-marketing initiatives with private firms. While these contracts required no expense on government’s part, they too were executed in compliance with public-private collaboration protocols. Among these initiatives were the ad campaigns done with Grab, for the installation of marketing materials in Grab vehicles; with Traveloka, to promote farm tourism; with SM for the “Malling is More Fun In the Philippines” campaign; with Joliibee, Cebu Pacific, Bench and Globe, who produced ads to co-market their products side by side with Philippine tourism.

There were substantial expenditures made to mount tourism-related events in which the Philippines was host. These include Routes Asia 2019, The Pacific Asia Travel Association Summit, the CAPA Low Cost Carrier Summit, the Philippine Education Tourism Conference and the Philippine International Dive Expo. Again, I found no irregularities.

I could not find the dubious contracts Congressman Duterte was referring to. My sources further revealed that Secretary Romulo-Puyat is so fastidious about following protocols that she even refuses to meet suppliers face to face. If there is anything the Secretary can be accused of, it is being too careful with contracts that they move slower than they should or don’t pass her acid test of legitimacy or worthwhileness.

Following the accusations of Congressman Duterte, some personalities joined the attack in an attempt to create a snowball effect of doubt against the beleaguered Secretary.

An old Commission on Audit (COA) report was resurrected citing P507 million worth of disbursements made by the DOT without documentation.

Upon inspection, I found that the biggest chunks of these undocumented disbursements were the P292 million spent for Manila’s hosting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in 2017 and the P153 million spent on CDs and DVDs used to record airings of DOT ads. Suspiciously, there was also P919,000 spent on foreign travels and P3.58 million worth of gift checks used as giveaways, among others. All these were disbursed during Wanda Teo’s term in office. They remain unliquidated up to this day.

Some critics have also accused the DOT of entering into advertising contracts that are frivolous, expensive and wasteful. I could understand how certain individuals unfamiliar with the principles of marketing can think this way. After all, there are no tangible asset one gets in return for marketing spend. For those better informed, they know that marketing spend translates to a favorable brand approval, brand recall and preference – all of which redound to tourist arrivals and inevitably, to dollar revenues.

Fact is, the Philippines’ promotions budget is but a fourth of that spent by our neighbors. For perspective, the Philippines spent just $27 million on promotions and branding last year, compared to $105 million spent by Malaysia, $80 million by Singapore and $69 million by Thailand, according to Forbes. 

The DOT has no room for frivolity nor waste. With limited resources, Secretary Romulo-Puyat must make sure each dollar spent yields the maximum amount of media mileage.

The DOT’s performance last year shows that spending was prudent, but effective.

Not withstanding budget limitations, the Philippines managed to attract 4.852 million foreign visitors from January to July, a 12.35 percent increase from last year. The DOT is on track towards hitting its target of 8.2 million foreign visitors for this year and 12 million visitors by 2022. In terms of revenues, intake of tourism dollars amounted to US$5.744 billion in the first seven months of the year, a 24.2% leap from last year. Again, the DOT is well on its way towards reaching its revenue target of US$10.85 billion for 2019. 

Statistics further shows that tourist per capita spending increased to $1,184 from $1070 in 2018. This means tourists are staying longer and spending more. We are approaching the $1,465 per capita spend of Singapore, which is the highest in the region.

The tourism industry provides 5.4 million jobs for our countrymen and accounts for 12.7 percent of gross national product. It is an important dollar earner for the economy.

I stand in defense of Secretary Romulo-Puyat as I have found no reason to doubt her working style, ethics or performance. If anything, I am grateful to her for putting the country’s tourism program back on track after the damage wrought by Wanda Teo and Cesar Montano. Even the President himself expressed his satisfaction.

There are just a handful of cabinet secretaries who exceed their targets. Sec Romulo Puyat is one of them. These are the public servants we should stand up for when unfairly attacked.

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