From missionary to mercenary to conspiracy

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

In an effort to promote tourism and development in “far flung” places in the 80’s, the national government pushed airline companies big and small to allocate flights and to make sure that the airfares were “reasonable” on the basis of them being “missionary flights.”

In hindsight, those flights were clearly helpful, considering how many “unknown” or distant tourist destinations back then are now standard go-to places and are serviced by larger and more frequent flights to real airports with paved runways and equipment.

Ironically, the increase in passenger load and frequency in flights have not turned into continued reasonable rates. Instead, they have gone from missionary to mercenary flights.

I have been receiving numerous complaints about how the prices are more expensive, coupled with the unregulated or unstructured room rates at resorts and hotels, resulting in very high prices for foreign and local tourists. High on the list are flights to Batanes, followed by flights to Busuanga, etc. But it doesn’t end there.

Back in the day, the Department of Tourism would visit, assess and categorize tourism facilities based on the 1-star to 4-star rating. The system somehow gave people and players a basis for determining pricing based on number of stars. I’m not sure but I get the impression that the system was abandoned or evidently is no longer a basis for expected facilities, services and pricing.

Even local governments don’t seem to have a grading system or structure to determine exactly how much hotels and resorts can charge. I have observed that there is a suspicious uniformity in pricing, except when a “foreign brand” or hotel sets up shop in the neighborhood.

People will probably say these things are market driven or based on what customers can afford. But the absence of structures and ratings, even price caps, can also result in cartels and conspiracies for prices to be so high for a captive market with no choice and no other place to go. It gives meaning to the term “tourist trap.”

I was invited to a lunch gathering of property developers where the wine was flowing and tongues wagging. That’s when I heard an investor in a large resort development in the San Juan-Laiya (Batangas) area “explain” why they were charging such high prices even for local tourists and why their prices are almost uniform.

In their view, people would accept the prices “because they won’t have to fly to Boracay, Palawan, Cebu, Bohol or Siargao. The round-trip airline savings per person would then cover a night or two in their area and still be within driving range of Metro Manila.” What the guy and his neighbors missed was the 4-hour round trip drive, gasoline and toll fees, not to mention the difference in beach and ambience.

As a result, the operators have turned off a potentially large number of customers, particularly local residents or Batangueños, who are now discouraging people from going to the area. I discovered this recently when I asked for recommendations and all the referrals given were for Mabini, Anilao, Lobo, Bauan and Calatagan.

When I asked a retired airline boss about the situation, he stressed that the stranglehold of three airlines – namely PAL, Cebu Pacific and Air Asia – and lack of studied structures, distances, load/fuel factor and outside competition do not motivate the operators to be price friendly.

It also does not help if there is no real active consumer group or congressman barking at the airlines, DOTr, DOT and DOF to come up with a wholistic program and regulation that will prevent cartels, conspiracy, predatory pricing in tourism-related services, including transport.

The industry and government create the semblance of checks and balance or regulation, but it is us the consumers who “draw out the checkbook” to pay much more than the real value of tourism in the Philippines.

While the DOT secretary may be all ears for President Marcos Jr. and is busy promoting the country abroad, I do hope that the secretary would consider addressing this now recurring complaint, even among seasoned travelers and business owners.

Many brand owners with retail outlets in the major tourism destinations in the country are forced to rely more on online management and monitoring instead of face-to-face presence and being physically present in their markets. Their number one complaint is that airfares are too high, followed by electricity charges of cooperatives.

Even local residents of these former missionary routes are now complaining how the tourism boom in their area has made air travel more expensive. Maybe the DOTr can work out special discounts for students, patients and government employees on “official travel.”

Four years post-COVID, Filipinos and their rush to revenge travel have now calmed down, largely because it is no longer affordable, not even for middle class Filipinos. I often hear the lament that “everybody wants to get back what they lost during COVID and so, wala nang mura (nothing is affordable)!”

There is now a need to rein in various aspects of the industry, particularly predatory pricing of airlines, resorts, even transport operators. I am certain that the government is losing income as it continues to fail to structure and regulate businesses.

When public sentiment starts to build up the impression that local tourism is too expensive, it creeps into the mindset of Filipinos, who then turn to foreign destinations. The truth is many foreign packages are actually cheaper or cost the same but have the added novelty and adventure for first-time visitors.

As the Bible suggests, a profit made too fast or gained too quickly tends to be lost. When the “off season” comes, will operators and airlines still be able to count on locals to keep them afloat? Or will they be saying “Sayonara?”

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