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At Large

Finding the balance in tourism

Critics of Tourism Secretary Wanda Tulfo Teo feasted on reports that on her trips abroad she brought along with her a personal makeup artist. The allegations were all part of a campaign to include her among government officials allegedly abusing their travel privileges, either by taking too-frequent trips abroad funded by taxpayers or letting junior officials or factotums go on trips, and thereby earning the ire of President Duterte.

But Teo has a perfectly reasonable explanation for the “makeup artist” issue. “He is really my executive assistant,” she explained over dinner last week. True, her EA had worked as a makeup artist at ABC5, the television station where Teo’s brother Erwin Tulfo worked as an anchor. But with the station’s employees facing retrenchment, Tulfo suggested that his sister hire the makeup artist. “He is a college graduate,” Teo clarifies, “and had other businesses aside from his sideline.” She also found him capable, reliable and trustworthy, and they got along well. This is an important criterion for a post which, in other offices and for other department heads, usually goes to adult children or relatives considering the confidential nature of the matters an EA handles. “When I need some documents during my trips abroad, he knows exactly what I need and brings them along. It’s like he can read my mind,” says Teo.

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But the biggest irony is that Teo doesn’t need a makeup artist at all. “I was a flight attendant when I was much younger,” she explains, “so I have been used to doing my own hair and makeup.” Even for formal affairs, she says, she sees no need to seek a beautician’s services. “I much prefer doing my own makeup, I find that sometimes makeup artists use too heavy a hand and I end up looking mataray (harsh).”

As for the trips for lowly Department of Tourism personnel, Teo says that she just took advantage of an offer from a luxury liner company giving her free tickets for a regional cruise. Soon after she took over the DOT, she says, she noted that many employees, some of whom had been with the department for decades, had never gone abroad.

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“How can you properly promote the Philippines if you don’t have a basis for comparison?” she says she asked the DOT employees. And so, she bypassed fairly senior old-timers and gave the complimentary tickets to relatively low-ranking officials. “Now at least they know what they’re saying when try to lure tourists here.”

At the moment, the biggest issue confronting the DOT is the impending closure of Boracay, undoubtedly the Philippines’ biggest tourism draw, along with other well-known local beach destinations. The planned closures are the result of studies done by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that show how Boracay and other top tourist destinations have become, in the memorable words of the President, “a cesspool.”

Wastewater containing deadly disease-bearing bacteria has been found not just in the water systems but also on the beaches and swimming areas themselves. As a result, some resorts are about to be shuttered and structures scheduled for demolition.

Closing down the country’s top tourism destinations would surely drive a tourism department, and its head, into a tailspin.

But Teo appears unperturbed, saying, “it’s about time we addressed this issue which has been festering for a long time.”

Other officials, notably senators who conducted a hearing on Boracay itself last week, have noted the possible impact on the livelihood of resort owners and employees.

While acknowledging that billions of pesos are at risk should tourists be banned from Boracay even if only for the recommended 60 days during the low season, Teo is already looking for alternative means of livelihood for the workers, and alternative destinations for tourists. “We have to strike a balance between the environment and the economy,” she said in a statement.

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Indeed, closing down Boracay to tourist arrivals would hurt both locals and others all the way in Manila. But unless the environmental disaster is mitigated, we stand to lose not just tourism numbers but our national reputation as well.

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TAGS: At Large, Department of Tourism, Philippine Tourism, Rina Jimenez-David, Wand Tulfo Teo
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