The problem with the Philippine tourism industry

by Caloy Libosada

When a surfing incident in Siargao involving an unqualified instructor and broadcast journalist Karen Davila’s son made the news, it put the spotlight on an industry that has been bogged down with a question that’s been begging to be answered: when is a destination ready for tourism?

Gone are the days when the travel industry was just a marginal sector in governance. One that was often regarded as a non-essential component in development. Tourism was, for many, an exclusive domain for foreign travelers and a few moneyed Filipinos.

Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, domestic tourism was virtually unheard of for most parts of the Philippines, and the only compelling reason to leave one’s community to go to far-away places was to visit friends and relatives. Only the likes of resorts in Cavite, Batangas, Cebu, the Ilocos provinces, and the highlands of Baguio had experiences of domestic tourism. And even then, the Department of Tourism (DOT) only had token programs for that market, with 90 percent of the marketing resources poured into attracting foreign tourists. You can blame a weak economy and security concerns as the main factors for that negligible domestic situation.

In those early days, I was a backpacker and tourism researcher going up the mountains and exploring caves. I always had to contend with the question of whether I was a communist rebel or a government spy. Very few would risk their lives in far-off rural places and be labeled as a target of both parties with guns.

Fast forward to the present and you will be astounded by the numbers: more than 50 million domestic movements last year (only including at least one night stay in a destination). In most destinations, domestic tourists occupy 70 to 90 percent of the space for visitor numbers. In terms of economic gains, foreign tourists provided about ₱250 billion receipts, while the domestic market distributed more than one trillion pesos.

From being a minor economic player that was just figuring out how to develop a few decades ago, the Philippines’ travel industry now contributes 8.6 percent to the GDP.

The proof of validity is now all over the country, and local government units that gained success for buying into tourism early on are clear proofs. Today, virtually every governor, mayor, and barangay captain wants to get a slice of the tourism windfall. For some, it’s the only way out of poverty for their constituents. For the majority, it’s a clear winnable investment. There is no need to spend anything, and it’s a good excuse to get development projects such as airports and tourism roads.

Unfortunately, our government is not designed to integrate tourism requirements into governance on all levels. It would have to take a visionary local government official who has the the grit to literally fight for a well-defined and managed tourism industry.

If sites start developing their tourism industry, they must recognize this fact. They must be ready to provide the needed facilities and services to the transients. They must go beyond the usual institutional excuse that they cannot satisfy the needed bureaucratic requirements.

The main mandate of the DOT is to attract tourists and manage some select sites such as Intramuros, Rizal Park, and so-called tourism economic zones. Tourism trainings are also provided and are slowly being modified to cater to various needs, such as first aid and specific guiding techniques (e.g. mountain guiding). But the magnitude of the industry growth already puts tremendous pressure on these training programs. Colorum guides easily multiply where visitor demands are high, and DOT-trained individuals are few and far between.

DOT, Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA), and an increasing number of provinces and municipalities are formulating tourism plans to guide destination stakeholders to more effectively develop their tourism industry. But therein lies the weakness of most plans — they are focused on tourism.

Tourism is a fragmented industry, and yet it requires the cooperation or input of every social and institutional organization. ‘Fragmented’ means that if somebody develops a facility, another group is responsible for attracting the tourists, and another for providing services. Meanwhile, government agencies are tasked to develop the roads, ports, and ticket gates.

There is a chance for municipalities to move up through the help of tourism. But the system itself makes this difficult. Towns have to reach certain local population and demand requirements to be allocated funding for schools, clinics, and hospitals, yet transient individuals, aka tourists, are not included in these counts.

Accidents can happen in any place, and tourists are the most vulnerable members of a society. They often do not have their support system with them, and their resources are highly limited. If sites start developing their tourism industry, they must recognize this fact. They must be ready to provide the needed facilities and services to the transients. They must go beyond the usual institutional excuse that they cannot satisfy the needed bureaucratic requirements.

The mere fact that their people have jobs and businesses and are paying taxes, and that outsiders are bringing in money to the local economy should be enough motivation for them to push for the establishment of basic social services.

I often say to local stakeholders to make tourism an excuse for the development of their communities. Make tourism an excuse for roads to be built leading to attractions. Roads that will be used by the locals as their farm-to-market routes. Make tourism an excuse to ask for cell sites, a port, or even an airport. And perhaps now, they can make tourists as an excuse for them to finally have necessary social services such as hospitals and even schools that will be used by visitors and locals.

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