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10/16

Ten million tourists by 2016. Can it be done? Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez thinks so, and with a growth of 37 percent since he took over (or a yearly growth of around 12 percent) compared to an average annual growth in the previous decade of 5.6 percent, there’s a distinct possibility. But that’s if he gets the financial and infrastructure support. You can’t bring in 10 million people if they’ve got nowhere to sleep (and remember, Terminal 1 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport is the world’s worst airport to sleep in) or can’t get to their chosen resort without wasting a precious vacation day or two getting there.

We met with Jimenez recently together with other Management Association of the Philippines governors and committee chairs, and, like Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson, he’s a man who’s not just talking (although he did some of that) but also getting things done.

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A key topic that came up was airports. First impressions are everything; we base so much of our impression of countries, and people, on what we first see. We first see Naia 1. It didn’t look any good 20-plus years ago, it looks worse now. So move to Clark. No, Jimenez says. By all means develop Clark as a gateway to change planes and head to Cebu, Davao or Kalibo, or wherever. Something that would be particularly useful for overseas Filipino workers who want to get home to their families fast. But as the national hub, no. It’s too far, almost 100 kilometers away. Building a high-speed railway would cost a bomb, as would the fare to ride it. And can you imagine a Philippine government building a high-tech bullet train in our lifetime when it can’t even connect two parts of an existing commuter line?

There’s a growing recognition around the world that airports need to be near cities. So he’s in favor of developing Naia, and as he explained it, it can be done, and does make sense. Get rid of the air force and general aviation (they can be moved to Sangley Point), improve the ability of air controllers to handle closer flights of planes, redesign the taxi ways, modernize the air navigation and landing systems. And modernize the terminals and approaches to them (the Skyway recently bid out is a major step in that direction).

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This will be Jimenez’s recommendation to the President. Let’s hope the President agrees, because whatever it is, a decision must be made now. Nearly 20 years to not decide where to have the principal airport is a damnation on previous administrations. Let’s not end up damning this administration, too.

I can’t detail all that was discussed in a short column, but a quick synopsis: Keep tourists here longer; it’s agreed to provide 30-day visas, no longer the absurdly short 21.

Encourage visiting execs to stay on and relax after berating their local managers.

Redevelop Intramuros—a once beautiful, historic city gone to rack and ruin. There’s a law that provides for it; it will now be done by 2016. What we didn’t discuss with Jimenez, but should, is to similarly redevelop the zoo. The zoo is on beautiful grounds but has been ignored and grossly underfunded for decades.

Cities need a zoo, children need to see our partners on this earth, to fall in love with them so they will want to protect their brethren in the wild.

Then there’s Roxas Boulevard. It used to be the focal point of the city, the place to stroll, to relax, to enjoy the spectacular sunsets over the bay. Today it’s the place to shudder at the garishness of street lights that belong in a horror museum. Its redevelopment will be completed in 2014.

Make the Philippines the Retirement Capital of the World and, associated with that, a healthcare center. In the West the oldies aren’t wanted, so they’re put in an old people’s home for Filipino caregivers to look after. Far, far better to bring them here. Our nurses can stay home with their families, the oldies will get the loving care and attention Filipinos are famous for. The weather is favorable, and the cost to their pension is a fraction of what it costs back home.

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It makes eminent sense.  And we will no longer call it “retirement” but “successful aging”—aging gracefully, proudly, still living a full life. As my wife said, “It’s wonderful how everyone looks after senior citizens so well: The government provides all sorts of help and nice gestures, but the people do, too. Wait in line? Even if there is no special lane, Filipinos will give way. If senior-citizen privileges can be given to foreigners as well as Filipinos, that will enhance the desirability of retiring here even more.”

So, too, does healthcare. We have world-class doctors, always have had. Now we also have world-class hospitals. And, as with retirement, at a fraction of the cost in developed countries. The one caveat here, though, is that you’re taking a risk; if something goes wrong in treatments it would be a black eye for the country. But given the demonstrated expertise here, I think it’s a risk worth taking. But we need set fees—fees that are known beforehand, not based on what the doctor thinks the patient can pay.

“More fun in the Philippines” was a brilliant piece of marketing. I’d add “with music,” because the musical talents of Filipinos add a level of joy you don’t get elsewhere. The demand is growing; now the supports to handle that influx need to be in place. That’s another column in itself.

I left the room confident this is a secretary that will get it done. The beauty of the Philippines, the charm of the people, is beginning to be world-recognized. There will be 10 million tourists in 2016.

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