The constant bombardment of media headlines showing the Philippines as a bloody ghetto where tourists are as likely to come across bullet-ridden bodies lying lifeless in the street as they are to experience fish while snorkelling around the country’s near-legendary coral reefs (photo), makes the Philippines a hard sell. Not surprising then that Tourism Secretary, Wanda Teo, is frustrated with the global anti-Duterte coverage which is more or less guaranteed to drive down foreign-visitor numbers.
Her job is tough enough, given the paucity of travel-trade infrastructure she inherited from past administrations; given the country’s legacy image as a low-end destination appealing more to backpackers and sex tourists than to families seeking a couple of weeks in the sun. Trying to manage the few assets at her disposal and change those perceptions is challenging enough without the scare stories.
It’s difficult to convince holidaymakers “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” when they’re constantly being told that Vlad the Impaler’s running the country. But that’s what they read – in all Philippine coverage by the Liberal media, the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, is depicted as a blood-crazed butcher who delights in killing his own people.
In their boiler-plate articles (they all read the same way) he’s slaughtered thousands of them – some he’s slain personally. Wholly uncorroborated, they write like that with a straight face. And, like water dripping on a stone, it’s been steadily eroding the country’s image as a holiday destination. According to the tourism secretary, overseas tour operators – particularly in Europe and other parts of Asia – regularly express concern about the security situation in the Philippines. It’s a constant topic. It’s THE topic.
And while the international Liberal media – ably assisted by elements of the pro-Liberal Party domestic press – gleefully rearrange the words ‘Hitler’, ‘tyrant’, ‘megalomania’, ‘EJKs’ (extrajudicial killings), ‘dictator’, in their bitter game of Scrabble which for them passes as journalism, all Teo is trying to do is her job.
The problem is though, once the lie is out there, it’s virtually impossible to stop – and particularly when it’s persistently being reinforced by the likes of Vice President and Liberal Party chairman, Leni Robredo, an arch-critic of Duterte whose job she wants.
But then the purpose of the lie is for it to become self-fulfilling. If foreign-tourist numbers drop – which they have been doing – opponents of Duterte’s War on Drugs are vindicated. They use the fall in numbers and the resulting fall in tourism revenue to illustrate the damage Duterte’s doing to the economy. For any newcomers, welcome to the dirty business of Philippine politics.
Unfortunately though, while Teo rightly urges the media to “tone down” their false propaganda-based anti-drugs-war coverage, another development is likely to provide a far bigger deterrent to Philippine tourism. And while even the rabidly anti-Duterte media can’t apportion blame to government policy in this case, the fact is that the country’s travel trade is going to find it tough to allay fears over the safety of foreigners.
Last Friday the US Embassy in the Philippines released a terror-warning to American citizens travelling to the country as well as to those living there. In itself, that’s not unusual; such warnings are routinely issued by all Western missions. But while those in all but a few cases have traditionally involved concerns for foreign nationals travelling to provinces in the west of Mindanao, the large southern island region where Islamic extremism is an ongoing problem – it’s been around there for decades – Friday’s warning did not.
Its caution was for travel to the middle of the country – the Central Visayas region; and specifically the provinces of Cebu and Bohol; both big tourist destinations. In 2016, of the 5.97 million foreign visitors to the Philippines, well over one third travelled to Cebu. In fact, so important is this region to the country’s tourism industry that the Department of Tourism has been relocated there from the capital, Manila.
The embassy travel warning was even more specific – referring to “unsubstantiated yet credible information” concerning the possible kidnappings of US nationals by terror groups. “US citizens should be mindful of the importance of taking preventative measures to ensure their safety and security while traveling and residing in the Philippines,” it said.
The statement urged US citizens to be particularly vigilant, to review personal security plans, and avoid large crowds and gatherings. These it listed as sporting events, theatres, markets, mass-transportation systems (including airlines), crowded nightclubs, shopping malls, buses and popular restaurants. In other words all the usual places where tourists go.
Yesterday, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade followed suit issuing a travel advisory of its own to Australian nationals. Again, Central Visayas was highlighted and Cebu and Bohol provinces were again identified. “We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in the Philippines due to the high threat of terrorist attack and the high level of crime,” the advisory said.
It would seem that both the Americans and the Australians were working off the same intelligence which may be related to the recent arrests of two high-ranking Islamic State bomb makers – Jihadis arrested in Manila – who are known to have visited Central Visayas including a stopover in Cebu City where they spent a few days.
This is a critical development and there’s no way of underplaying it. The Islamic-extremist threat has arrived at the heart of the Philippines major tourism hub – an area which had been specifically earmarked for tourism development. It was to be at the vanguard of a new era of Philippine tourism.
Dealing with media terrorism – the undermining of government by helping to create economic failure in an already-challenged sector – is one thing. Islamic terrorism with all the horror which that invokes is quite another. Oddly, they’ll have the same effect as far as overseas arrivals are concerned, but in the case of the latter the anti-Duterte factions can’t claim any victory. Indeed, any attack on the country will further inure support for the president and his policies. In other words it’ll have the direct opposite effect of what they hope to achieve with their slamming of Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign.
Following the bombing last Christmas which killed 14 people in a night market in Duterte’s home town, Davao City, the outpouring of support for the president’s immediate announcement that he’d declared “a state of lawlessness” – powers allowing police and military assets to be drafted in to set up checkpoints and impose curfews – was palpable right across the country.
With the exception of a few feeble media attempts to raise the spectre of martial law, the country fully backed the president’s decision. And that will be the case if he decides to impose ‘emergency powers’ following any future incidents.
Just over a week ago, Duterte’s hardcore supporters called on him to declare a “revolutionary government’. This, if it takes effect, would be more far ranging. It would allow him to override Congress and push to replace the 1987 Constitution with the 1973 Constitution which was promulgated following the declaration of martial law by then-president, Ferdinand Marcos, a man the Liberal Left hates even more than Duterte.
So the state of play is this. While the media can tarnish the country’s image abroad and inflict damage on the Philippine travel and tourism industry – in effect by warning people not to go there – they’re gambling that a reduction in foreign arrivals will turn the tide of popularity against Duterte. They’ll try to show that tourism was far healthier under the previous Liberal Party administration which they support and want reinstated – in the interim, under Robredo.
However, all that could be taken out of their hands if Duterte decides to establish some form of a state of emergency in reply to any terrorist threat. Counter-terrorism measures would be difficult to argue against by the international media – and of course, particularly where American lives might be put at risk.
Either way it’s not great news for tourism. But the reality is this. A country awash with drugs – and all the attendant crime; thieving, scamming, mugging, rape and violence – is a poor foundation for an industry that’s promoting fun and relaxation.
Equally, it’s hard to build out tourism in the presence of a jihadist threat. Ask tour operators in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. In October 2015, a terrorist bomb placed on an aircraft full of holidaymakers returning home from the resort exploded over North Sinai killing all 224 people on board. Tourist numbers dropped by 45.9%. Since that attack, Egypt’s tourism has been described as “one disaster from being finished”.
Ask anyone in the travel trade in Tunisia. In June 2015, a lone Islamist carried out a mass shooting at a resort close to the city of Sousse killing 39 people as they lay on the beach or ran for safety in the hotel. Following that rampage, British arrivals dropped by 90% – 30 of the dead were from the UK – while overall, foreign tourist numbers fell by 1 million as revenues plunged by 35%. Businesses closed, staff were made jobless and the local currency travelled to historic lows against the dollar and the euro.