Beyond hospitality

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But—are we ready for it? That’s the question that comes to mind once the sense of pride and joy one gets at the news that a slew of international travel publications has highlighted the Philippines as a top travel destination this year washes over.

There is, of course, no denying the significance or impact of those endorsements. When two vaunted rivals, New York-based Travel+Leisure Magazine and the UK edition of Condé Nast Traveler, both agree that the country is now a must-visit place (“Sorry, Maldives… We love you, but we’ve got a new flame”—in Condé Nast Traveler’s memorable formulation), then that means we’re doing something right. At long last, the ghosts of Dos Palmas and other tourism-related PR nightmares of the past seem to be fading, and we’ve sufficiently turned a new leaf in the world’s eyes to merit a second, more approving, look.

The New York Times, for instance, makes no mention of the ills that have long dogged any mention of the Philippines as a leisure destination—security and safety, an international airport ranked as among the world’s worst and poor infrastructure—in its glowing hat tip to the country, which it placed at no. 17 in the paper’s list of “46 Places to Go in 2013,” ahead of Puerto Rico, Thailand, Norway, Ireland, even Paris.

“A surfing and beach destination goes luxe,” it said. “Idyllic white sand beaches, secluded, little-known surf towns and pristine reefs are among the natural draws of this country made up of over 7,000 tropical islands.”

However, while we have reason to exult that we’re finally catching the world’s attention in a most positive light, we might need to pause awhile and consider if we can live up to the hype. In other words, when the hordes of tourists and travelers egged on by such international endorsements—welcome and much-needed as they are—do come, will they find conditions here as auspicious and welcoming and comfortable as need be? Will their stay be something that not only they would be happy about as visitors to our shores, but also we would be proud of as hosts?

It’s worth noting that on the same week that the world’s international travel media were anointing the Philippines as one of the best places to head to this year, the Atimonan shootout (or rubout, as it’s looking more and more) was hogging local headlines and exposing, once again, corruption, thievery and violence in the police force and local politics. President Aquino has said he remains worried at the peace and order situation in the country, especially right after a New Year’s Eve celebration in which a kid died from a stray bullet, followed by that shooting incident in Quezon between police officers and alleged “jueteng” operators that look more and more like a well-planned ambush.

“While it is important for all to acknowledge that great strides have been made in suppressing   criminality in our country, I will also be the first to admit that much work remains to be done,” Mr. Aquino said recently.

That work should include beefing up security for tourism-related purposes, now that the country expects a major uptick in visitor arrivals with the Philippines’ fast-improving image abroad. This cannot, however, be the kind of ad hoc, superficial “police visibility” campaigns that are so often trotted out whenever a surge in street crimes happens. A comprehensive program for tourist safety and security is needed, because foreign visitors are simply the best advertisements money can’t buy about the country. If they find their sojourns in any of our cities, towns or islands safe and more than pleasant, chances are they’d be the first to tell others in their home countries that the blurbs weren’t exaggerating; the Philippines is indeed worth a visit.

They’d be hard-pressed to do that, however, if they feel unsafe walking in our streets, or are fleeced by unscrupulous taxi drivers right out of the airport, or with pickpockets victimizing them in the malls.

Infrastructure, too, needs a serious look. The international travel magazines are rightly enthused about the raft of luxury accommodations springing up in the country’s choice spots but, at a more basic level, the government needs to upgrade facilities to make the country ready for the influx of tourists. That should begin with the antiquated disgrace that is the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which, until now, represents a distressing first impression for first-time visitors to the Philippines.

Now that the world’s gaze is on us, we better make sure we have the wherewithal to follow through. Our famous hospitality alone won’t cut it.

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