Lim’s ‘open skies’ policy was a failure
The headline in yesterday’s Inquirer was: “Lim: Fight for open skies.”
In an interview with the Inquirer, Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim—who has submitted his resignation effective at the end of August, and already accepted by President Aquino—talked about his alleged “achievements” in the Department of Tourism. But I think his only dubious achievement was to open up Philippine skies to foreign carriers at the expense of our own carriers. Other airlines, especially those in Middle Eastern countries, are heavily subsidized by their respective governments, but the Philippine government makes it difficult for our airlines to compete with foreign carriers in an increasingly decreasing market coupled with the rising costs of operations due to sky-high fuel prices.
Lim came to public notice when he headed a group pushing for an “open skies” policy in the Philippines. The group’s reasoning was simplistic: If you allow more planes to fly into the Philippines, more tourists would come here. False.
But Lim and his friends fervently believed in it. Perhaps Lim became tourism secretary to be able to make open skies a permanent Philippine policy. No sooner had Lim been appointed than President Aquino issued his order opening Philippine skies to foreign airlines.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. During Lim’s stint in the tourism department, the number of tourists coming here did not increase significantly—which is probably one reason he resigned.
Just because you allow foreign airlines unlimited access into your country does not mean they would fly in planeloads of tourists. First of all, the tourists must want to go to your country, perhaps attracted by the tourist spots. That’s the only time they will book seats in the airlines. And the airlines will fly extra flights into your country only when there are plenty of passengers wanting to go there. That is not happening.
Our Asian neighbors like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia do not have an open skies policy, but tourists are going there in droves. We have an open skies policy but tourists are not coming here. Why? What’s the difference?
Because they have more tourist attractions. Because it is easier to go around their countries: the roads are better, local transportation is easier to get, accommodations in the tourist spots are better, the locals do not try to overcharge the tourists. And it is safer there: there are no terrorists, rebels and kidnappers. On the other hand, the depredations of kidnappers in Mindanao—ironically, the site of many tourist attractions that Westerners dream about—are well-known all over the world. Even Filipino tourists are afraid to go there. If you were a foreign tourist, will you take the chance of going to the Philippines when there are so many other attractions among its neighboring countries?
The unkindest cut is that with open skies, the Philippine government favors foreign airlines at the expense of the three Philippine carriers. Landing rights are traditionally a result of bargaining among governments. Every week you let 10 flights of my carriers land in your city, and I will allow your airlines to land 10 flights a week in my airport. Quid pro quo. It’s as simple as that.
With open skies, however, the Philippines allows unlimited numbers of foreign aircraft to land in the Philippines, expecting they would bring in the tourists.
But the countries benefited by this Philippine open skies policy do not give our airlines the same hospitable treatment. The flights of
Philippine airlines to their cities are still limited.
In fact, most benefited by open skies are American carriers which have many planes lying idle. Open skies was concocted by the US government upon the prodding of its airlines. It is suspected that the Philippine group that first pushed for open skies was created by the US government and that its members were US “dummies.”
The United States wants all Asian countries to have open skies. But it is not opening up its own skies to Asian carriers. On the contrary, it has reduced Asian flights to the US on some pretext or another, as what it has done to Philippine Airlines.
Other Asian countries did not buy the US open skies bait. Only the Philippines did.
Did it benefit the Philippines? No. Did open skies bring in more tourists. No.
Did Lim succeed in bringing in more tourists? No. Did our tourism industry prosper? No. Was open skies a success for the Philippines? No. Was it a total failure? Yes!
So what can we do to attract more tourists? First and foremost, make the Philippines safe, not only from kidnappers and outlaws but also from opportunists.
For example, as soon as tourists arrive at Philippine international airports, immigration officers try to extort money from them. Porters extort more money from them. When they leave the airport for their hotels, they have no choice but to hire the privately-operated airport limousine service that charges exorbitant fares. In Singapore, arrivals have a choice of buses that make the rounds of the hotels very cheaply. Why can’t we have the same service here?
From Manila, it is very difficult to go to the tourist spots in the provinces. Yes, there are domestic airlines going to key cities, but once you get there it is difficult to get to the tourist spots in outlying areas. Sometimes there are jeepneys and boats offering to take them there, but they always overcharge their passengers.
Some of the best tourist attractions are in Mindanao, but that is also where kidnappers are most active. Foreigners have heard of them, and that is one reason they are shying away from the Philippines.
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