In recent years, Philippine tourism was something of a sunshine industry. Buoyed by the economic stability of the Aquino years and the focused, competent management of the tourism portfolio by then Secretary Ramon Jimenez, the country’s tourism front steadily expanded with higher arrival numbers year by year and more hotels, resorts and hospitality-related businesses opening up. The Department of Tourism missed its ambitious target of 10 million foreign visitors by 2016, but from 3.2 million in 2010, already a record at that time, the country drew 5.9 million last year.
That number translates to some $12.4 billion in revenues for the country, or about 4.2 percent of total GDP. In 2015, 4.7-4.8 million Filipinos were also directly employed in the tourism sector, the DOT said.
The first quarter of 2017 appears to be on track with this sustained upswing, with some 1.78 million tourists coming in compared to 1.6 million last year, or an increase of 11 percent. Despite “hiccups,” according to presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella, “foreign visitors continue to increase steadily.”
But if not addressed in time, those “hiccups” may constitute a dark cloud over the horizon. In the latest worldwide Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index released by the World Economic Forum, the Philippines ominously fell five places, from 74 in 2015 out of 141 countries to 79 in 2017 out of 136 countries.
The country scored highest in price competitiveness, placing 22nd, testifying to the relative affordability of staying in the Philippines. Its lowest score was in the area of safety and security, at 126th—making it, according to the WEF report, the 11th most dangerous country for tourists, bested only by Colombia, Yemen, El Salvador, Pakistan, Nigeria, Venezuela, Egypt, Kenya, Honduras and Ukraine.
That negative picture undoubtedly derives, first of all, from the kidnap-for-ransom incidents that the bandit group Abu Sayyaf has perpetrated in the South for years now, seemingly with unchecked impunity. As of March this year, the military said, the Abu Sayyaf was still holding 30 captives, among them 11 Vietnamese, a Dutchman, a Korean, seven Indonesians, three Malaysians and eight Filipinos.
The videos that the bandit group has released of tourists being held in miserable conditions—or, worse, beheaded if ransom demands for their release are not met—have been a body blow not only to Philippine tourism. In the age of 24/7 news and social media, they also perpetuate the image of a government and a country unable to provide basic safety, security and law enforcement for visitors who want to enjoy their holidays in the “more fun” spirit that supposedly defines this cheery, legendarily hospitable corner of Southeast Asia.
The security concerns extend to the cities: News of a Korean businessman kidnapped by cops for ransom and murdered right inside the national police headquarters no doubt caused spasms of worry in many Korean visitors and other tourists. And, in the wake of incursions by armed groups into such tourist havens as the provinces of Bohol and Palawan, various countries have taken to warning their citizens about travelling to these areas. So far, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea have all issued travel advisories; those countries are all major sources of tourist arrivals to the Philippines.
The war in Marawi and the declaration of martial law in the whole of Mindanao will also put an additional damper on tourism this year, at least for the immediate term. Add to that the alarm caused by the arson and shooting incident at the posh Resorts World Manila—though unrelated to terrorism, according to the authorities—and you have a picture of Philippine tourism seemingly under siege. Is the DOT up to the challenge of fixing these “hiccups”?
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