News Analysis Tourism

Trapped tourism

Philippine beach
Philippine beach

Philippine tourism has received some severe blows recently with the mounting Islamic insurgency in the south of the country and its potential to spread to other parts of the Philippines being the biggest of all. The foiled attack on a tourist resort in Bohol in the central Visayas region which led to cancelled bookings – including reservations in a five-star Cebu hotel by 500 Japanese travellers – are part of a mounting bill for the industry.

Meanwhile, foreign governments continue to routinely put out travel warnings to their citizens urging them to avoid certain Philippine destinations and stay alert wherever they travel in the archipelago. And that’s not going to stop as long as the terrorist incidents persist.

But travel warnings per se are probably the least of it – despite urgings from the Department of Tourism (DOT) for foreign governments to lift them: in April Tourism Secretary, Wanda Teo, said she would write to her counterparts in Japan and South Korea asking that their governments rescind their travel advisories and issue statements that the Philippines is a safe place to visit.

Of course, no government is going to put another country’s tourism concerns above the safety of its citizens – much less promote somewhere that could endanger them. But even if they did, it would make no difference to tourists’ perceptions. Most travellers get their information from TV and the Internet. And the 24/7 news cycle that feeds them is far more graphic in depicting the dangers of taking a holiday or a business trip to the Philippines than a few prosaic paragraphs on a government website. What they see and read there can very quickly influence their decision.

All that then is part of the lawlessness bill; it’s inevitable and it’s unavoidable. And that building cost – to a sector which the Philippines needs to strengthen for the overall good of the economy – is another reason why the Islamist threat must be put down.

The current crisis in Marawi City in Lanao del Sur on the southern island of Mindanao, where members of the outlawed extremist Maute Group has run up its Islamic State (IS) black flags, needs to be resolved decisively and quickly. The rest of the IS-linked terror network in the Philippines, comprising half a dozen or so other jihadist organisations, needs to be destroyed; foreign IS fighters in the country need to be captured, killed or driven out.

The primary concern of travellers everywhere, whether on vacation or business, is their personal safety. It doesn’t matter how pristine the waters are, how rich in colourful tropical fish the coral reefs are, how white the sandy beaches – if there’s a chance they could get kidnapped of blown to pieces by a bomb, they’re not going to go there. That’s the reality that faces the DOT.

The horrific fire started by a gambling addict at the Resorts World Casino in Manila in the early hours of Friday, which left 38 people dead, will be another blow to tourism – particularly to the gaming and entertainment sector now that it’s been revealed that casinos registered to the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) didn’t require fire certificates from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP).

That incomprehensible decision to transfer authority over fire-safety regulation from the BFP to PEZA – made by former justice secretary, Leila de Lima, who’s presently awaiting trial on drug-trafficking charges – has now been reversed.

But high rollers, which casinos depend on for their business, are super-sensitive when it comes to their personal security. They’ll walk away from a casino if a black cat crosses their path on the way there; now they know that highly flammable materials were allowed to be used in the busy gaming rooms, they’ll be giving them a wide berth.

Kidnapping and extortion is another problem for Philippine tourism. Last October, a South Korean businessman was taken from his home by police in Angeles City. Pampanga – a city notorious for its sex dens, girlie bars and massage parlours – and a ransom payment was extorted from his wife, even after they’d killed him. The pushback from that incident, the threat to tourist numbers from South Korea – the biggest arrivals demographic of any – is likely to be considerable.

In 2016, the Philippines received more Koreans than any other national group; they accounted for 24.71% of all visitors. Some 1,331,701 made trips to the archipelago’s cities and resorts last year, spending more than any other group by a long way. In November alone, Korean tourists left behind PHP5.65 billion in the Philippines. So important is this burgeoning trade that there are frequent daily flights between a number of cities in the two countries.

Certainly these incidents are beyond the DOT’s control – but, that said, there’s still plenty it can do to resolve the industry’s internal problems. And right now, while tourism is being subdued by external issues, would be a good time to deal with them.

It may be ‘More Fun in the Philippines’ according to the DOT’s publicity division, but according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, that may not be entirely true as it slips five places in the rankings since the Swiss-based non-profit’s last assessment in 2015. This report is published biennially. And actually it’s worse than that. In 2015 the Philippines was 74th out of 141 countries; in the latest report it’s 79th out of 136.

What’s more significant though is the country’s low regional ranking – in other words within Southeast Asia where it needs to compete hardest. The Philippines isn’t issuing a challenge to the food and Renaissance-art allure of Italy; it’s competing to attract tourists who want to visit Asia. And the fact is it’s not doing it very well.

Of the eight members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) surveyed – Brunei and Myanmar are not included in the report – the Philippines ranks 6th. The Asean states’ global positions in the report are as follows: Singapore, 13th; Malaysia, 26th; Thailand, 34th; Indonesia, 42nd; Vietnam. 67th; Philippines, 79th; Laos, 94th; Cambodia, 101st. It’s not just that it’s behind the top five; it’s how much it’s behind them.

The Volatilian™ will be looking at this report and how it pertains to the Philippines in more detail in an upcoming infographic series, but what’s plain from reading it is that tourism needs to fight harder for the things it needs from other parts of government – from transport infrastructure to ICT – if it’s ever going to be able to compete on a more level playing field with its Asean peer group.

In passing, on the issue of safety and security it’s placed last in Asean. Global ratings in this category are as follows: Singapore, 6th; Malaysia, 41st; Vietnam. 57th; Laos, 66th; Cambodia, 88th; Thailand, 91st; 118th; Indonesia, Philippines, 126th. Furthermore, this report was produced before the terrorist assault on Marawi City and the deadly Manila casino fire.

In February, Asean held its 35th Tourism Forum in Manila. The theme was “One Community for Sustainability” – based on the idea of pooling the tourism resources of the entire region to offer the Asean region itself as a single quality destination by 2025. It’s a bold plan but the chances of putting in place a uniform package of tourist facilities and services for the length and breadth of Southeast Asia in the next 10 years is about as likely as tours to Jupiter.

However, some standardisation – a system for grading Asean hotels and resorts, for example – should be possible. This would not just be good for tourists who could then compare mangoes with mangoes, rather than with lychees or durian, it would also help to professionalise the industry and make it healthily competitive. An Asean Certificate of Quality could be the benchmark to which hotels and resorts would aspire.

But the question is, why hasn’t the Philippines already got in place a reliable system for gauging – and regulating tourism standards? The DOT has all the usual rules and regulations governing the accreditation of resorts, hotels, tourist inns, motel, apartels, pension houses, but these were promulgated and approved in 1992 – that’s a quarter of a century ago! What was deemed “de luxe” or “first class” back then is not regarded as such today.

For example, tourists in today’s world demand reliable WiFi Internet access – preferably free. Holidaymakers aren’t seeking a desert-island experience; they need to stay in touch online. They want to post pictures of their holiday exploits as they happen. And the fact is that’s not universally available at Philippine resorts.

In 2015, a total of 108,904,000 tourists travelled to Asean countries. Of those just 5,360,682 visited the Philippines. In other words it received just 4.92% of the year’s tourist share. The fact is that’s not down to terrorism; nor President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs – his efforts to cleanse the country of a methamphetamine addiction that has some 4 million Filipinos in its grip. That hadn’t even been thought of then.

This poor performance reflects a far deeper malaise within Philippine tourism and one that has to be addressed if the country’s serious about becoming a major player in this sector. The time for blame and excuses needs to end; Philippine tourism has to start taking a long hard look at itself; its inadequacies – not just in terms of infrastructure but its internal shortcomings. As they say in 12-step programmes, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

And the industry in the Philippines has never taken that step. For example, instead of blaming the generally low opinion tourists have about Filipino food on the tourists’ less than appreciative taste buds, look at the problem. One of the reasons they go abroad is to experience the local cuisine. They certainly don’t have any problem with Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Singaporean, Indian, Korean and Malaysian food, but no one’s rushing back home to search out Filipino restaurants.

Rigorously following up consumer complaints about hotels, restaurants and other services also needs to be greatly enhanced. The idea behind tourism is not just to get people to come to the country, it’s to make sure they keep coming.

The fact is, once peace has been restored in Mindanao; once the drug cartels have been disbanded; even once the infrastructure is in – though all that will make the Philippines appreciatively safer and easier to get around – the underlying problems of Philippine tourism will still be there. And the numbers won’t greatly increase; they won’t be piling into the Philippines to look at the new roads. Tourists are a discerning breed.