Sustainable fun, responsible tourism
Sustainability is the theme of the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) “It’s more fun in the Philippines” campaign, (re)launched last week at the National Museum of Natural History. Graced by Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat and her Department of the Interior and Local Government counterpart Eduardo Año, the “reboot” came with a simplified, rewoven logo; a new, open-source font; and a new approach to marketing: crowdsourcing photos and videos from travelers who use the hashtag #itsmorefuninthephilippines.
The event began by trumpeting Boracay’s rehabilitation and Manila Bay’s cleanup, holding them up as templates for the new approach to tourism. “We are coming into 2019 with a renewed and refreshed sense of purpose. With more and more travelers conscious about their ecological footprint, the cultures and experiences they are consuming, and simply wanting to know how they can give back, the time is ripe for a repurposing of the word ‘fun,’” Secretary Puyat said.
Under the museum’s iconic “Tree of Life,” seemingly detached from the urban chaos a stone’s throw away, it is easy to feel optimistic about our tourism prospects—and proud of our natural heritage. The exhibits of the recently opened museum were most impressive
—from the 6-meter-long stuffed crocodile, Lolong, to the rhinoceros fossils that pushed back the record of human existence in the country to an incredible 700,000 years. The National Museum complex has truly emerged as a great attraction, and I should go back soon for the two others—the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Anthropology.
Even so, as I left the museum I was also filled with concerns about the sustainability both of the tourism campaign and the country’s tourist attractions—that is, our natural and cultural heritage.
In the first place, there are nagging questions about our “carrying capacity.” Asked about plans to limit tourists, Secretary Puyat reiterated the paradigm of sustainability, but it remains unclear how this can be implemented, particularly in areas where local government units and commercial interests get in the way. Mindful that mountains and other fragile ecosystems can also be mismanaged, perhaps it’s about time to consider a National Park Service independent of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
In the second place, there are also questions about whether the government’s highly touted rehabilitation has been structural or merely superficial. While there seems to be some genuine effort toward meaningful reforms and, even now, some measurable outcomes (e.g. decreased coliform levels in Boracay), the seeming rush to pursue reclamation projects in Manila Bay will undermine the government’s message.
Thirdly, we can also interrogate to what depth and extent the government wants to talk about sustainability. Yes, it’s important to highlight responsible tourism, but preserving our biodiversity is not just about not throwing trash or contributing to environmental organizations—it’s also about stopping habitat destruction and changing our consumption practices. It’s about calling out mining interests and real-estate developers who corrupt our government. And, yes, it’s about problematizing the unintended consequences of tourism, and recognizing the tensions between conservation and people’s economic needs.
Finally, the best efforts of DOT can be enfeebled by some of the pronouncements and policies of the administration itself. During the press conference, Secretary Año was right to point out that the terrorist threat is confined to just a small part of the country. But what of numerous drug-related killings, including that of Jee Ick-joo—which until now many Koreans cannot forget? What of Mr. Duterte’s—and now Teddy Locsin Jr.’s—Holocaust remarks? And what of Manila’s road and air traffic woes?
Only with a government that respects human rights and provides efficient public services can Filipinos confidently and wholeheartedly recommend the country to visitors.
Fortunately, there seems to be openness on the part of Secretary Puyat to engage with various stakeholders, and if her department’s paradigm leads us to raise hard questions, then it’s a way forward. Despite all our concerns, surely we can all rally behind a tourism campaign with sustainability at its heart.
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