News Analysis Tourism

Sunnier side of tourism

Palawan topped Travel + Leisure’s ‘Best Islands in the World’ award
Palawan topped Travel + Leisure’s ‘Best Islands in the World’ award

Philippine tourism – hounded by Western headlines about death on the streets in a government drugs war; the kidnapping threat to foreign nationals by butchering terrorists – hasn’t had much good press recently. Well now it has as one of the archipelago’s 7,641 islands is voted No.1 in the world, while another takes the No.3 slot.

Travel + Leisure’s ‘Best Islands in the World’, a prestigious annual award given to the winner of a global poll conducted by the magazine, goes to Palawan (photo), the Philippines fifth-largest island which straddles the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea – 4,700 square miles of mountains, jungle and silver-sand beaches pitched in clear azure waters teeming with tropical fish.

Meanwhile, Palawan’s biggest domestic rival for tourism, Boracay in Aklan province, Western Visayas, a water-sports paradise famous for scuba-diving, snorkeling, parasailing and windsurfing – jointly administered by the Philippine Tourism Authority and Aklan’s provincial government – was voted in as the third Best Island in the World. Tiny by comparison to Palawan – less than four square miles in area – as a fun place for travellers, Boracay has always punched well above its weight.

Winning such awards is like gold dust for national travel industries – they amount to advertising that money simply can’t buy.
Nor is any of this a flash in the pan – Palawan won the award in 2013 and came second in 2016. Also in 2016, rival publication, Condé Nast Traveler, declared Palawan to be ‘The Most Beautiful Island in the World’ in its Readers’ Choice Awards – retaining the title it had won the previous year. Back in 2007, another travel magazine, National Geographic Traveler (NGT), ranked Palawan as the best travel destination in East and Southeast Asia. In the write-up of its awards, NGT described Palawan as “One of the most biodiverse (terrestrial and marine) islands in the Philippines [with] incredibly beautiful natural seascapes and landscapes”.

All that’s true which is probably why it was chosen by Hollywood location agents for the filming of three high-budget films – the James Bond spy-adventure, The World Is Not Enough (1999); The Beach (2000), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and The Bourne Legacy (2012).

Similarly, Boracay has also been a popular choice with readers of these magazines. It won Travel + Leisure’s Best Islands Award in 2012 and 2016; in 2012 it was voted “The World’s Most Romantic Island,” while in 2014 and again last year, Condé Nast Traveler presented it with the title “Top Island in the World” (Palawan came second).

Winning such awards is like gold dust for national travel industries – they amount to advertising that money simply can’t buy.  Effectively, these are awards given by travellers and tourists themselves – hundreds of thousands of them in the case of these magazines. Furthermore, coverage of award-winning locations reaches a prime market; readerships of these publications are concentrated in the US where they’re produced, but also in Europe – both prime target universes for the Philippine travel and tour industry.

Travel + Leisure, owned by Time Inc and based in New York, is a monthly publication with a print and digital circulation of around 950,000 to 980,000. Condé Nast Traveler, another New York monthly, owned by US mass-media corporation, Condé Nast, has a combined print/online circulation of 809,987 and gets 4,275,149 monthly page views to its online site. National Geographic Traveler has a US subscription base of 615,000 – but claims a global audience of 9,619,000. That sort of exposure for Palawan and Boracay is worth its expanse in gold. 

Certainly, the Philippines tourism industry needs all the help it can get – natural resources it has in abundance; good publicity it lacks – particularly of late.

Certainly, the Philippines tourism industry needs all the help it can get – natural resources, such as Palawan’s iconic underground river outside the island’s capital, Puerto Princesa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has in abundance; good publicity it lacks – particularly of late.

In April, Department of Tourism (DOT) Secretary, Wanda Teo, expressed her frustration at a slew of travel warnings coming out of foreign embassies which alerted visitors to the dangers of travelling to parts of the Philippines – specifically, the tourism hubs of Cebu and Bohol in the Central Visayas – because of potential threats from Abu Sayyaf terrorists; she also urged the international media to “tone down” their over-the-top coverage of the government’s drugs war – Tourism and terrorism.

Be that as it may, the target for foreign tourist arrivals to the Philippines this year is 6.5 million, with a forecast revenue value of PHP407 billion; that would be an 8.3% increase on the 6 million who visited the archipelago last year. If that happens it’ll be an impressive performance and mark a new record year for Philippine tourism. The 2016 numbers were already an 11.94% leap from the 5.36 million arrivals recorded in 2015.

And, naturally, Boracay and Palawan were major contributors to the 2016 arrivals stats with a record 1.7 million domestic and foreign holidaymakers converging on Boracay, up from  868,765 in 2015, and 1,162,439 trooping to Palawan.

What would make it all the more significant if this year’s target is reached, is that it will have done so as the Tourism Department was working with a reduced operating budget. Just PHP2.5 billion was set aside for tourism spending for 2017 – 32% lower than the PHP3.6 billion allocated for the industry in the previous year.

That said, Philippine tourism stands to be a major beneficiary from the PHP324 billion which the government has set aside to develop and upgrade rail, air and sea port infrastructure under the Department of Transport’s convergence programme, and from the PHP167 billion which the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone (or, Tieza) will be spending on developing tourism enterprise zones around the country.

In addition to that there’s the Tourism Development Fund with a PHP4.58 million allocation for tourism promotion and marketing and a further stream of capital – some PHP150 million – from the net profits of Duty Free Philippines for unspecified tourism undertakings.

… all the adverse publicity which the country has received from the Western press regarding President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs, has also done little to dissuade travellers.
What seems fairly clear right now though is that Secretary Teo’s concerns – that the terror threat in the south would damage the industry this year – have thankfully not materialised. Moreover, the highly publicised Battle of Marawi – the siege of the city in Lanao del Sur on the southern island of Mindanao by Islamic State-linked terrorists; now about to enter its eighth week – would also seem to have had little effect on deterring travellers to other parts of the country.

Tourists have continued to come to the archipelago at an average rate of around 590,000 a month. In the first three months of this year close to 1.8 million foreign tourists had already travelled to the Philippines.

That means that all the adverse publicity which the country has received from the Western press regarding President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs, has also done little to dissuade travellers.

All-in-all then, everything taken into account, the outlook for Philippine tourism – certainly as far as arrival numbers are concerned – looks very positive. And that also goes for domestic tourists which the DOT believes can reach 73.3 million this year; a 4% increase on last year’s traveller numbers.

The big challenge for Philippine tourism, however, is to beat the competition in its own back yard – fellow states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Recently, The VolatilianTM produced an infographic based on the World Economic Forum’s 2027 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report. What that showed was that the Philippines is trailing its main rivals in its bid to attract tourists and travellers.

What that showed is this: of the eight Asean state surveyed – Brunei and Myanmar are not included in the report – the Philippines ranks 6th. The Asean states’ global positions out of 136 countries worldwide are as follows: Singapore, 13th; Malaysia, 26th; Thailand, 34th; Indonesia, 42nd; Vietnam. 67th; Philippines, 79th; Laos, 94th; Cambodia, 101st. Trapped tourism.

Interestingly though, the only other Asean destination to make it onto Travel + Leisure’s 2017 ‘Best Islands in the World’ top-10 list was Bali in Indonesia which was placed 10th.

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