For many developing countries like the Philippines, the tourism industry is one of the major engines for growth and development. Tourism brings in the needed foreign exchange to pay for imports, creates opportunities for investment, and generates millions of jobs for the local communities that serve as tourist destinations. The latest statistics show more than six million tourist arrivals for 2017, with South Korea leading, followed closely by China and Japan. Employment figures for the tourist sector come close to 5.5 million and is still growing. With the massive infrastructure program of the government, in line with the “Build, build, build” slogan, there is every reason to look forward to even greater progress in the tourism industry.
But even as we desire to move forward and create more opportunities for our people, we must also make sure that we preserve our natural resources for the benefit of future generations instead of going into unrestricted development activities that only bring short-term benefits for a few.
Last month, President Duterte shocked the tourism world by calling Boracay, one of the crown jewels of the industry, a “cesspool,” referring to the indiscriminate disposal of waste material on the island directly into the sea. In his brutally frank speaking style, the President called Boracay “a looming disaster” and threatened to close down the place unless everyone got their act together.
Sure enough, immediately after he spoke, three department heads were all over radio and television calling meetings, issuing threatening statements, and conducting inspections and giving out ultimatums that covered building violations and unregulated construction activities on the island. Even the Senate joined the fray.
Do you think these agencies would have reacted so quickly if the President used diplomatic and polite words in telling the nation what he thought of Boracay? We have been hearing about this problem of waste disposal on the island for several years now, nothing really new. But nothing was ever done to seriously address the problem and everyone went about their merry ways as though they could do anything they wanted. Now, people are jumping up and down as the President calls the shots. That is what our people listen to and respect: strong words backed by certainty of action.
In light of recent developments, let me take you back to earlier days when tourism was a strange world for most of us.
After independence was granted by the United States in July 1946, my father was taken in by the newly organized Philippine foreign service, and appointed the country’s first consul general to Honolulu in what was then the Territory of Hawaii. This was before statehood was granted. The Hawaiian Islands hosted the largest overseas community of Filipino migrant workers, most of who were in sugarcane and pineapple plantations. Most were also from the Ilocos region.
When we flew to Hawaii in 1947, we took a four-engine transport plane that required several stops for refueling before reaching our destination. By the time we got to Honolulu, I was too groggy (and maybe, too young) to fully appreciate the swinging grass skirts that welcomed us at the airport with an ukulele band in the background. All I wanted to do was to sleep on a flat bed.
It was in Hawaii that my father first realized the tremendous importance of a tourism industry as he saw waves after waves of visitors to Honolulu by air and by ship, taking in the sunshine and enjoying the sights at Waikiki Beach and nearby Diamond Head Mountain.
When we returned to the Philippines, he founded together with a close friend, Mr. Salvador Peña, who served with him in the Philippine Consulate, the Philippine Tourist and Travel
Association (PTTA), the first tourist promotion agency in the country. President Ramon Magsaysay later appointed him the first commissioner of tourism, a position that has since been elevated to Cabinet level. He was elected first Filipino president of the International Union of Official Travel Organizations, forerunner of what is now the World Tourism Organization.
As mentioned above, Salvador Peña was a cofounder of the PTTA and rose from executive director to become president of the association from 1961-1962. As PTTA head, he sat as secretary of the Board of Tourist and Travel Industry. The BTTI was tasked to set the laws and policies for the industry while the PTTA acted as the implementing agency. Incidentally, “Badong” Peña’s son, lawyer Nilo Peña, is currently head of the Quasha Ancheta Peña and Nolasco law firm.
During the second Kalakbay Awards of the Department of Tourism (DOT), my father and Salvador Peña were both honored posthumously with a lifetime achievement award by the DOT under then Secretary Peter Garrucho for their contributions to the development of the tourism industry in the Philippines.
In December 2003, the DOT under Secretary Richard Gordon, awarded my cousin, Anos Fonacier, with a lifetime achievement award for his work in promoting tourism particularly in Cebu and Bohol. Bobbit Avila remembers him as the “father of Cebu’s tourism industry” because “before he appeared on the scene, Cebu really had nothing to offer as far as tourism was concerned.” His most ambitious project was
Cebu Plaza Hotel (now Marco Polo Plaza Hotel), the first five-star establishment outside Metro Manila. But perhaps, he will be remembered most for his genius in creating a new slogan for Cebu as “an island in the Pacific” at a time of great unrest and uncertainty for the tourist industry during the latter years of the martial law era.