Definitely, it’s sweet music to the ears: The number of visitors the Philippines had last January hit a record high, breaching the 400,000 level. That’s 17.5 percent higher than the 349,713 foreign tourists in the same month last year, with the Koreans, the country’s biggest tourism market, setting another record by being the first to make it beyond 100,000 in any given month until then.
The figures do look encouraging for a year’s start—a far cry from the air of gloom that darkened the country’s tourism horizon in the aftermath of the hostage-taking incident in Rizal Park in August 2010, which left eight vacationers from Hong Kong dead. But it’s too early to say that the Department of Tourism’s accomplishment in January is the product of its much ballyhooed, and as equally panned, “more fun in the Philippines” campaign, which was, after all, launched only that same month.
Because in point of fact, despite its January achievement, Philippine tourism remains an “underachiever.” Its less than 3.7 million foreign guests in 2011 lagged far behind Thailand’s 17 million, Singapore’s 11 million, and Malaysia’s 25 million. In 2003, BBC correspondent John Mclean commented on Philippine tourism’s laggard performance, noting that it “should be one of the stars of the Philippine economy, given the country’s beaches, mountains, golf courses, casinos—and friendly people. But foreign tourists are not coming.”
Why? The answers, as many as they are varied, have been repeated endlessly through the years: terrorism and crimes victimizing foreigners (e.g., kidnap-for-ransom incidents specifically in Mindanao, tourists robbed of cash and personal belongings, the alleged forceful taking into custody of a Japanese national by National Bureau of Investigation operatives, the recent disappearance of an Australian right at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport); deficient tourism infrastructure and facilities (e.g., bad roads, cumbersome access to tourist destinations, dirty “comfort rooms”); poor support services (e.g., lack of information about where to go and what to do, crooked cab drivers and hotel staff); negative media, etc.
The YouTube viral “20 reasons why I dislike the Philippines” of Jimmy Sieczka, an American who claims to have lived in Cebu, may have offended DOT officials. But then, not only foreigners, but also Filipino-Americans, and even born-and-bred Filipinos, have been contributing to the country’s bad publicity—whether here or abroad.
Philippine tourism’s woes are “public knowledge” and many are vocal about these. Yet the industry appears to be taking off. This should be a signal for the government, together with the private sector, to seize the momentum with more vigor. They can start with instilling more discipline among support services providers. This is also the best time for the government to develop or explore the country for those yet-to-be “discovered,” pristine getaways that abound in the nooks and crannies of our 7,100 islands, which, for sure, will enhance the country’s allure even more.
This year’s target of 4 million tourist arrivals and 2016’s 10 million can be achieved when Philippine tourism’s present inadequacies and drawbacks are effectively addressed.
And not just because the Philippines has its tourist spots that are comparable to, if not better than, those in other countries. More than these are its nature wonders—now well-known but still unsurpassed, we think—like the Puerto Princesa Underground River and the man-made monument to human ingenuity for survival, the Banaue Rice Terraces. Add the fact that in the Philippines, the tourist has in one country a wide range of options that can meet specific individual interests or pursuits—like the 17th-century stone cathedral in Romblon, the Lulugayan Falls and Rapids in Calbiga, Western Samar, the Philippine Eagle Conservation Center in Davao City, and many other little-known destinations.
Add to these, furthermore, the factor that Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez says no other country can offer—the Filipino people, indisputably hospitable, warm and wonderful.
Some countries proclaim themselves “impressive,” “sensational,” “mystical,” “incredible” and “amazing.” With greater, more thoughtful effort by the government and the tourism industry, visitors should easily find that the Philippines is really all these rolled into one, making it indisputably, incomparably fun.
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