News Analysis Tourism

Jaws of a dilemma

Murray Hamilton, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss.

In Steven Spielberg’s classic 1975 thriller, Jaws, Mayor Larry Vaughn (photo, left) wanted to keep quiet the fact that there was a man-eating great white shark picking off bathers in the waters around his island-resort town. He didn’t want the tourists scared away. “Amity is a summer town. We need summer dollars,” he told the police chief who urged him in vain to close the beaches. And the inevitable happened; more bathers ended up as the shark’s dinner. The Mayor had gambled with people’s lives solely for tourism revenue. And of course if that happened in real life the holiday trade in that town would be blighted for years to come.

With that in mind, we find the response from the Philippines Department of Tourism (DOT) to concerns from within the travel trade – following recent travel advisories put out by a number of foreign governments urging their citizens to exercise extra caution when travelling to certain parts of the Philippines – extremely troubling.

Assistant DOT Secretary, Ricky Alegre, said his department is sensitive to the travel advisories issued by various countries as they could affect tourism. He added: “The DOT assures (travel operators) that we are coordinating with the proper authorities that these (travel advisories) will not happen again”.

And then he doubled down. “It is unfair to declare travel advisory in the country because it affects the entire country. We want to remind the other countries that we are an archipelago, which means we have lots of other areas where their citizens can visit,” he said. “You can choose another area that is readily available for your citizens. It is safe in the Philippines”.

Our reaction to that is the same as our reaction to Mayor Vaughn. The DOT’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of tourists. And if foreign governments, working from intelligence sources, assess that it’s dangerous to travel to certain areas of the country, then the DOT has a duty to publicise that, not try and conceal the information or downplay it. If an incident happened under those circumstances, Philippine tourism would be dead in the water anyway. The publicity it would generate globally could cripple the Philippine tourist industry as travellers give the place a wide berth.

The cold fact is that it’s unsafe in parts of the Philippines as we’re sure Alegre is aware. Yachting and fishing around the Sulu Archipelago off southwestern Mindanao – one of the biggest kidnapping-for ransom zones in the world – for example, is not something that tourists should be encouraged to do.

Here’s what led up to Alegre’s extraordinary statement.

On Monday last week a number of foreign governments – among them, the US, European, Canada, Australia and South Korea – warned their nationals to take precautions when travelling in the Philippines. A number of them specifically mentioned travel to the Central Visayas. The following day, five Abu Sayyaf terrorists and four soldiers were killed in a fire-fight in Bohol in that same region. It’s believed that the militants had gone there to kidnap tourists from one of the island resorts.

In the aftermath, Philippine tour operators received a number of holiday cancellations. In one case, 500 travelers from Japan scrapped their reservations at a five-star hotel in Cebu, also in the Central Visayas. This prompted the head of Rajah Tours Philippines, Alejandra Clemente, to write to DOT Secretary, Wanda Teo, to express concern.

Claiming that the Japanese tour groups would have spent around PHP30 million while they were in the country, Clemente said that the travel advisories had started to “take their toll” on Philippine tourism. Global news coverage of the deadly confrontation between Islamic militants and security forces, which she attributes the cancellations to, along with the travel warnings, had left the impression that the Philippines is an unsafe pace for tourists; Clemente said that government and the private travel-trade sector need to: “act fast to arrest this very alarming situation”.

Thus, the DOT is caught in the jaws of a dilemma. On the one hand its role is to promote the country as a fun and carefree place where families can enjoy their vacation – as their slogan declares, “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”; that the environment is not just rich in tourist amenities but that it’s safe for travellers. On the other hand, it has to deal responsibly with the realities of that environment – whatever those realities are; whatever the short-term impact on the industry.

If for example, Mayon volcano – the most active in the archipelago and a huge tourist attraction – was in danger of erupting, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology would issue an alert warning of the danger. The last thing is would be considering is the potential loss of tourist dollars.

Travel warnings put out by foreign governments are issued for exactly the same reason; to keep people safe. That safety – and the guarantee of it by national tourism authorities – moreover, is fundamental to developing and maintaining a successful travel-trade sector. The corollary of that is that countries that play fast and loose with the safety of visitors run the risk of dooming their tour and travel industries.

The simple fact is, military conflicts of the type in which Abu Sayyaf is engaged are not conducive to tourism. There are no tourist flights to Mosul in Iraq, to Aleppo in Syria; no package-deal holidays to Somalia. Furthermore, when an event like the gun battle in Bohol takes place, there is no way in this age of social media of keeping that quiet. Soviet-era blanket news blackouts are a thing of the past and they certainly can’t be replicated in the Philippines. So these are the realities of the environment with which the DOT has to contend.

This is very different to Teo’s plea to the media last month, to “tone down” their exaggerated reports on President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs which have had a detrimental affect on the industry. Tourists are in no greater danger from that campaign than they are by getting hit by a London bus.

The drugs-war coverage, however, is largely politically motivated and any damage to Philippine tourism resulting from it would be used to further the propaganda. Teo was right then to make the appeal, though it’s unlikely to have much effect given the strong rabid anti-Duterte element within the domestic press.

As a tourist destination – particularly given its natural resources – the Philippines has, and always has had, tremendous potential. With proper infrastructure – it still suffers from the wanton neglect of past administrations – hospitality-training to international standards, greater investment to upgrade and enhance amenities, Philippine tourism could leave every other part of Southeast Asia in its wake.

It could, and should, be an even bigger contributor to the country’s economic growth given the country’s paucity of other industry. Last year travel and tourism accounted for 19.7% of gross domestic product which is impressive. It’s the highest it’s ever been. But in terms of arrival numbers and revenue totals it’s less impressive, falling behind much of the region.

So what can the DOT and the private tours sector actually do to safeguard the industry in light of those environmental realities? Well, first or all it has to be honest – and it should seize the initiative. If foreign governments issue warnings through their embassies and foreign missions, the DOT should make sure it’s on the mailing lists to receive them.

It could then issue its own comprehensive warnings – the local media will certainly oblige by publishing them – “DOT Travel Alerts,” pinpointing wherever possible where the dangers are. This would enable it to build a reputation as a responsible and reliable source of Philippine-travel information.

And it should publicise this service overseas throughout its agencies. “DOT Travel Alerts” should be acknowledged globally as the most dependable source of travel information for anyone going to the Philippines. It would be public-relations gold; integrity is a hugely undervalued commodity.

And with respect to “damage control” following an incident like the one that took place in Bohol which has left a cloud over the country’s tourism sector, the DOT should immediately respond with a press release explaining the isolated nature of the event.

None of this is rocket-science, but it does demand rigorous honesty. Failure in that department will simply hold the country up to further ridicule – especially in this Internet age – and the fallout from that could end up being even more damaging, more costly, than an incident it wanted to play down or deny. In short, the Mayor Vaughn School of Public Disclosure is not the way to go.

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