News Analysis Tourism

‘Tourists lack of awareness’ – the last resort

Government expectations of a rapid growth in tourist arrivals to the Philippines, largely based on the euphoria surrounding an overall improvement in the economy, rather than any real investment to develop the tourism sector – whether through new infrastructure or comprehensive global promotion campaigns – have been wild, to say the least. The industry is still beset by the same creaking problems that has stagnated it throughout successive administrations.

Certainly, tourist-arrivals numbers are on a steady up-curve: 3,917,000 in 2011, 4,273,000 (2012), 4,681,000 (2013), 4,833,000 (2014). But comforting to the Department of Tourism (DOT) though those figures might be, they could never form the basis for their prediction that the country would be welcoming 10 million tourists by the end of 2015 – the prognosis at the time of DOT Secretary, Ramon Jiminez. In fact, although notching up a record intake of visitors, 2015 saw a little more than half the forecast materialising – 5,360,682 arrivals.

We’ll go right out on a limb here: it’s not going to happen this year either.

By the end of May, 2.23 million visitors had been recorded, leaving 7,770,000 more needed to reach the magic DOT number in seven months. It would need every single visitor to the archipelago in 2015 to do as the DOT’s latest proposed tourism slogan suggests – “Visit the Philippines Again 2016” – to reach the target. Between 5.5 and 5.75 million, and probably at the lower end, would be a far more realistic estimate.

In a regional context the country’s tourist-arrival numbers remain shabby. Against the Philippines 5.36 million are: Thailand, 29.88 million; Malaysia, 25.7 million, (and that was a bad year for them); Singapore, 15.2 million; Indonesia, 10.4 million; Vietnam, 7.95 million.

Earnings from tourism in 2015 paint a similar picture: Thailand, US$39.76 billion; Malaysia US$17.01billion; Singapore, US$16.3 billion; Indonesia, US$11.44 billion, and the Philippines – US$4.92 billion. Although we don’t have the 2015 receipts for Vietnam, its tourism earnings will also be well ahead of the Philippines: in 2014, Vietnam earned US$7.33 billion. On all tourism metrics, in the Asean states league, the Philippines is 6th, trailed by Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei.

Jiminez, who will be replaced in the new administration, though President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to name his Tourism Secretary, famously told a CNN reporter shortly after his appointment by outgoing president, Benigno Aquino, that, “ignorance” was the root cause of his country’s ailing tourism industry. “It’s plain and simple, the lack of awareness about the Philippines is the major contributing factor as to why tourists from [foreign] countries have not visited our shores,” he said.

Of course, in this Internet-connected world, the Philippines is not – and wasn’t when Jiminez made those remarks – some lost exotic kingdom that had disappeared beneath the radar of the world’s excursioning public. In fact, the reverse. They were well aware of what the archipelago has to offer – its fabled Banaue Rice Terraces, its Chocolate Hills, Puerto Princesa’s underground river, and on and on – but they were also well informed of the difficulties and hazards of travel in the Philippines: among them, the interminable delays at domestic airports, and the time spent locked in traffic on poor roads to reach their resorts.

Tourists are on a time budget and can’t afford to have it squandered. In short, among the missing pieces of the Philippines tourism jigsaw are the desperate shortages in infrastructure. The Philippines does not have the flight frequency, nor the capacity, nor the airport infrastructure to manage the millions of tourists it would like to see passing through its gateways. “It’s More Fun in the Philippines”, looks well on the travel brochures, but it takes on a morbid irony for tourists struggling to reach their hotel in the Tropical heat after a 14 hour international flight.