It’s a first in our history, according to the Department of Tourism: Two million tourists visited in the first five months of the year—a 10.54-percent increase from the same period in 2012. “This building enthusiasm for the Philippines,” said Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez, “gives us the confidence to achieve our target of 10 million tourist arrivals by 2016.”
Jimenez’s projections seem even more feasible now that the European Union has announced that Philippine Airlines may resume flights to the continent. In 2010, the European Union blacklisted local carriers after the International Civil Aviation Organization found “significant safety concerns” in Philippine aviation standards. But with the partial lifting of the ban (Cebu Pacific and other carriers are still barred from flying into Europe), PAL has announced it could restart flights to the 28-nation bloc as early as September or October, with direct routes to Paris, London, Rome, Amsterdam, and other key European cities.
The news has been met with unbridled enthusiasm by local travel agencies. “As a country, we should all be proud that PAL would be returning to Europe after 15 years of absence,” said Philippine Travel Agencies Association president John Paul M. Cabalza. “We laud the efforts of both the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines and PAL toward the lifting of the ban.”
Europeans are a coveted tourist market because, according to PTAA data, European travelers spend an average of $80 a day and stay in the country for at least eight days. The Philippines is also reportedly the eighth cheapest destination in Asia, with tourists needing only $18.52 a day to enjoy their visit. But the EU ban for the last three years has effectively throttled large-scale tourist arrivals from the continent. The record 2-million arrivals so far this year, for instance, show that only the British and German markets have registered any growth.
President Aquino has lauded the news as “stunning progress.” Well, not quite. Bringing in more tourists is one thing, ensuring that they have a safe and memorable stay is another. While the dilapidated Ninoy Aquino International Airport is finally getting its long-overdue makeover, other urgent matters impacting on tourism also demand attention from the government.
At the airport, complaints about crooked cabbies and sundry hangers-on continue to be aired. Transport and amenities across the country are a spotty, often unregulated affair. In Metro Manila alone, the traffic and infrastructure to and from important visitor attractions (Intramuros at one end, say, and Ayala Museum in another) remain an embarrassment. And it’s still not a good idea for visitors to walk the metro’s streets at night.
We’ve opened the gates, but much work has to be done—fast.
When it comes to pride and ownership not only about a nation’s image but also about how it interacts with the world, we could learn a thing or two from the South Koreans. The crash of a jet from the Seoul-based Asiana Airlines the other weekend in San Francisco was a blow to the nation’s psyche, reported the Associated Press. “South Koreans took it personally. The president issued a statement of regret. With a low bow, Asiana Airlines’ chief apologized not just to passengers and their families but to all of South Korea. Along with sadness over one of the highest-profile crashes by a Korean air carrier in recent years, average South Koreans expressed shame and embarrassment about how it would reflect on their country.”
That inclusive mindset might well explain how South Koreans have managed to transform their country from the devastation of the Korean War into one of the world’s most progressive economies—by investing a palpably personal sense of co-ownership into any activity that reflected on their country’s name, from cutting-edge Samsung products to the unapologetically Korean, but also boundary-transcending, tropes of K-pop.
“And when a company’s stumbles draw international attention, there’s a collective sense of national shame, even for South Koreans who have no connection to the company beyond nationality,” noted the Associated Press.
For a famously fractious, free-for-all nation, we could use more of South Korea’s unifying sense of collective personal stake in national affairs, beginning with our renewed push to become, at last, a major player in the international tourist market. Let’s not blow it.