On 30 January next year, the Philippines will be hosting the Miss Universe pageant. That’s fine, after all Manila’s not held that event for 23 years – it’s probably the Philippines turn again. But what has it got to do with tourism? And more particularly, what has it got to do with the Department of Tourism (DOT)? In both cases the answer is, virtually nothing. This is a one-off event with minimal tourist appeal, and it won’t make an iota of difference to arrival numbers which is really the name of the game.
And yet the DOT has flagged this as some kind of coup. It’s not. It’s a single event; like a car show – though that would generate more visitors given the number of trade representatives who routinely attend those. Miss Universe is largely a TV spectacular; it’s not something people travel to – at least not in any discernable numbers.
After watching Miss Universe 2017 from their couch in Milwaukee or somewhere in Essex, people will not be rushing out to get travel brochures on the Philippines. Most won’t even know where it took place; much less care. They’re watching the contestants and evaluating them; they’re not travel shopping. They’re not going to be looking at Miss Bahamas or Miss Seychelles and think: “the Philippines looks like a nice place for a holiday”. So what was the DOT’s thinking behind this?
Lamentably, what it looks like is a pitch to present the Philippines as a venue for a major international beauty contest. But that’s not the DOT’s job. It can, and should applaud it, but that’s all. The pageant – as everywhere else in the world – belongs to private enterprise. And, indeed, the US$11 million which this one is going to cost is being paid for by private sponsors. And if there’s any money to be made out of it, it will go to them and rightly so. They’re the investors; they get the return.
This is not serious planning for a sector that is battling to stay ahead of the smaller nations in Southeast Asia; much less close the yawning gap on the others. Like most department heads, DOT Secretary, Wanda Corazon Teo, has a tough task ahead of her. This is a challenging job at the best of times – and these are not the best of times.
The cut in next year’s tourism budget – a hefty 32%, from PHP3.61 billion to PHP2.457 billion – will certainly smart, but it also means that the DOT has to be smarter with its planning. It need to work closer with other departments, such as Public Works and piggy-back on their budget by pressing for urgent infrastructure projects which will have a lasting impact on the industry. It has teamed up with the Agriculture Department to facilitate and boost agritourism, and that’s proving to be a sound initiative.
Certainly, tourism should be tying up with the private sector – with companies like Tiger Resort Leisure and Entertainment Limited which is one of the 2017 Miss Universe pageant sponsors. But in a substantial way such as, in this case, supporting Tiger’s ambitions to open gaming resorts along the Philippine coast and encouraging them to use their promotion budgets to spread the word abroad.
Also, harping on about how Palawan is the best tourism destination on the planet is another example of missing the point. It might be the best as far as Travel + Leisure magazine’s readers are concerned – it was their poll that gave it the title – but let’s get this in perspective. This game is about numbers. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, 5.36 million tourists descended on the Philippines last year; and maybe one fifth of those went to Palawan. One city in Spain, Benidorm, gets 5 million tourists a year. Closer to home, in 2015 – a bad year – Hong Kong received 59.3 million tourists; Thailand attracted nearly 30 million.
No one would disagree that Philippine tourism is faced with a myriad of problems, and the reduction in the DOT budget is another blow. But there are still plenty of things that can be done to improve the appeal of the Philippines as a tourist destination.
How about doing something about the Philippine food? It’s virtually the only cuisine in East and Southeast Asia that remains confined to barracks. Unlike Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Singaporean, Malay, Japanese, Korean, even Taiwanese, it doesn’t travel (with the exception of to overseas Filipino communities). When’s the last time someone in London or Milan said “Let’s go to a Philippine restaurant tonight”?
The fact is, part of travelling to different parts of the world is to experience different foods. And the constant feedback from tourists is that the food is the last thing they would come to the Philippines for. And for a tourist destination that’s a big indictment and an even bigger handicap. Like it or not, it’s a serious problem and the DOT should be at the forefront of finding a solution.
How about doing something to dispel the image of the Philippines as a rambling sex garden with budget-priced hookers? Of course, it’s a distorted view, but that doesn’t make it any less real and any less damaging. The negative impact on Philippine tourism is immense. Universally, the biggest sector of tourism arrivals by far is families, and so while this is the perception – not the coral lined shores – this massive segment remains largely out of reach. They need to be won over.
The fact is, whether we like it or not, these are real problems which need real solutions, and they’ll still be there even if every resort in the country is connected by a super highway.