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Our dependence on tourism

/ 04:15 AM February 28, 2020

Early this month, the Department of Tourism assured us that the COVID-19 scare would not drastically affect tourism in the country. But only a few weeks later, the labor and employment department in Aklan announced that more than 300 workers in Boracay would be out of work for the next three months due to the virus scare. More than 1,000 other workers have been put on “flexible” schedules, cutting their work hours to as little as 15 days a month. At the same time, tourism stakeholders in Cebu are bracing for a possible travel ban on South Korea, the city’s top tourism market.

It’s a stark reminder of how precarious our local economies become when relying too heavily on the tourism industry. Yet this very industry has come to be the bread and butter of many Philippine provinces.

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The World Travel & Tourism Council reveals that travel and tourism was the largest sector in the Philippines in 2018, accounting for 24.7 percent of our GDP. (Numbers from the Philippine Statistics Authority differ, but similarly point to an increase in tourism’s economic contribution.)

It’s come to a point where tourism is not just touted as a driver of local progress but also sometimes its objective. In destination provinces, many development projects are geared toward attracting more visitors. Single-use infrastructure in particular—such as festival stadiums, tourist transport, resort access roads, and specialty hotels—are accommodations primarily intended for guests.

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This hyper-focus on tourism should ideally be beneficial, except for a few significant issues. Not least of them is that tourism is volatile, constantly at the mercy of natural disasters, social unrest, and as COVID-19 demonstrates, threats to safety and well-being. In addition, tourism is typically exploitative. With every hotel built and tourist route opened, a landscape is altered, with ripples on the local ecology and culture.

There are other economic nuances to it as well. Development and humanitarian specialist Geert Vansintjan, writing for Foreign Policy, posits that “if not handled properly, [tourism] can crowd out sectors that have more potential for future development. In turn, tourism can leave countries worse off in the long run.”

He cites in particular how an economy that’s dominated by tourism ends up having low returns on education. In touristic regions, much of the available employment goes to service-industry positions that neither demand a degree nor open up higher career opportunities for workers. Over a lifetime, there is minimal increase in the individual worker’s salary and productivity; collectively, the economic trajectory of the community falls flat.

This is quite sharply felt in the Philippines, where much of the profitable interests in tourism are controlled or owned by a few elites, often foreigners, while the rest of the local population are thrown a bone in the form of service jobs. What few local enterprises there are are often quashed by well-resourced big players.

As for tourism investments that are supposed to inject more life into the local economy—sadly, it doesn’t always translate to a better life for locals. I’ve lived in different provinces in Northern Mindanao—a region rife with crowd-drawing beaches and waterfalls—and the dissonance between flourishing tourism and the locals’ quality of life is easily observable. The touristic façade of a locale can mask its true economic situation. For instance, tourist arrivals are consistently vigorous and celebrated, yet year after year, high poverty persists among residents. As of the 2015 Poverty Census, four of Northern Mindanao’s five provinces have a poverty incidence higher than the national average. The national poverty incidence is itself high enough already at 21.6 percent, meaning that about one in every five Filipinos lives below the poverty line.

With tourism’s volatility, exploitative nature, and unintended economic impact, it cannot be a healthy foundation for a development strategy. Individuals, families, and communities should not have to rely solely on this industry for income.

Of course, a country as naturally and culturally rich as the Philippines cannot help but open its arms to tourism opportunities. But as we have learned in basic economics, a healthy economy is one that’s diverse and participative across various sectors. Other viable sectors in our regions—be it agriculture, fisheries, education, technology, health—need attention as contributors to growth. The population itself must be empowered toward self-sufficiency instead of just waiting for a windfall of port arrivals and souvenir sales.

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