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P10B for tourism infrastructure: Why?

As I write this, the bicameral committee on Bayanihan 2 (sequel to Bayanihan to Heal as One Act) is meeting to reconcile their different versions of the bill, entitled “Providing for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Interventions and Providing Mechanisms to Accelerate the Recovery and Bolster the Resiliency of the Philippine Economy, Providing Funds Therefor and for Other Purposes.”

I haven’t read either version, but friends in the tourism and travel sector are up in arms over the House version (HB 6953), as it applies to them.

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Very simply put, the Senate version (SB 1564) provides P10 billion to the tourism industry in the form of direct assistance to thousands of small and medium enterprises—low interest loans, loan guarantees, and credit facilities—through government financial institutions, as well as the establishment of COVID-19 testing centers in tourist destinations identified by the Department of Tourism.

This is what the stakeholders in the tourism industry want, and I mean everybody—the Tourism Congress of the Philippines which our tourism law designates as the umbrella organization representing the private sector, and all the major associations which make up its membership. The authors of the Senate bill obviously consulted and listened to them.

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The House, however, decided to go its own way. The House version wants the P10 billion to finance the “programs of the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (Tieza) assisting the recovery of the tourism industry that shall include the provision of tourism infrastructure.” Additionally, P100 million is being allocated to finance the training and subsidies for tourist guides.

Can you see the difference, Reader? One version tries to financially prop up an industry struggling to keep going through the pandemic—small, and medium-sized, owner-operated enterprises all throughout the Philippines. An industry that, according to our Philippine Statistics Authority, was responsible for 12.7 percent of our GDP and employed 5.7 million last year in tourism activities, transportation, accommodation, food, recreation, etc., both inbound and domestic. That’s the Senate version, which, as I said, wants to tide them over with loans, guarantees, credit facilities. Notice, Reader, that this is not subsidy, loans will be repaid. And the financial help will allow them to maintain themselves and their wageworkers for the duration.

The other version wants to put the P10 billion in infrastructure through the Tieza. A simple question: What good will infra improvements do, if the destinations are no longer in operation, having had to close down? Just asking.

Besides, I am given to understand that the Department of Finance took P12 billion from Tieza last year, because it was unable to start its projects. A matter of lack of absorptive capacity, apparently. So how will P10 billion given to it help toward response and recovery? Unless of course, it is spent on projects that have the smell of PORK to them—corruption-laden. What is the track record of Tieza? We want the P10 billion in the pockets of millions of people, not in the pockets of a few. In one choice lies recovery and stimulus, in the other lies—well, nothing good for the economy, anyway.

Reader, what scares me is that the Tourism Congress did not only talk to the Senate, they talked to the House, too. And from the beginning, it was their considered opinion that while infrastructure was important, it was not what was needed in the time of pandemic. What was needed was financial assistance for their working capital so the industry does not collapse. And Tourism Secretary Berna Puyat is behind them all the way (Berna as tourism secretary is also chair of the Tieza board, so that’s telling you a lot). And if their message was not clear enough, they sent a letter to Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano last Aug. 9, restating their position. Deaf ears.

What scares me even more is that this is only one provision that we are talking about where the good of the country may be compromised, given the importance of tourism. What if there are others? Will Bayanihan 2 be even worse than Bayanihan 1? That will be the death knell for Philippine recovery.

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TAGS: Bayanihan 2, Coronavirus, COVID-19, economy, health, Legislation, pandemic, Recovery, Tieza, Tourism, virus
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