Spooking tourists

March 30, 2017 at 11:59

Spooking tourists

As the “mummies” started piling up last year in the administration’s vicious war on drugs, several foreign diplomats told me that investors and travel industry players had expressed concern about the situation in the Philippines.

The investors came mostly from countries whose laws prohibit private companies from doing business with governments or entities linked to gross human rights violations.

As for potential travelers, I was told that their concerns focused mainly on the impact of the mass killings on visitors’ safety.

So Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo is partly correct: bad press is hurting Philippine tourism. But the negative reports are about real killings, which are the reason for the bad publicity. And the government can’t expect reports about the killings to be “toned down” a bit, as requested by the tourism chief.

There aren’t a lot of countries where thousands of drug suspects have been exterminated by police and vigilantes in less than nine months. The international media has also reported extensively on the drug violence in several Latin American countries. In fact one of the two favorite books of President Duterte, Gangster Warlords (the other is Altar of Secrets), is an account of the drug wars in several South American countries, written by British journalist Ioan Grillo who is based in Mexico City.

Dirty Rody’s foul mouth and propensity to pick a fight with the US and the European Union have drawn more international media attention to the killings in the Philippines.

If such killings occurred elsewhere in Asia, with the police largely failing to bring any executioner to justice, it could bring down governments. In the Philippines, the killers are rewarded with cash and plum assignments.

How can the media ignore such stories?

It hasn’t helped that the government is picking a fight, in a flailing way, with The New York Times over negative reports and commentary on the killings. President Duterte and his foul mouth are magnets for bad press, which in turn can deter tourism.

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Administration officials should bear in mind that stifling human rights does not necessarily dampen tourism. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are way ahead of the Philippines in terms of tourist arrivals. Asia’s top tourist destination is China.

What travelers worry about is their personal safety. This includes the possibility of being mugged, kidnapped or caught in the crossfire of drug violence.

In South Korea, the Philippines’ biggest source of foreign visitors for several years now, the kidnapping and execution of South Korean business executive Jee Ick-joo by members of the main anti-drug unit of the Philippine National Police received prominent media coverage and added to long-simmering worries about foreigners’ safety in our country.

We get a lot of South Korean visitors not just because they like our weather and other tourist attractions, but also because of good air connectivity. There are several direct flights between Seoul and Philippine airports including those in Manila, Boracay and Cebu.

Air connectivity is one thing that must be pushed by the tourism chief. It’s an edge over us that’s enjoyed by the top travel destinations in our neighborhood: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

Tourism is one of the casualties of our failure to develop our aviation infrastructure. Instead of building on our initial lead of having a modern international airport as early as 1961 and launching Asia’s first airline, we sat complacently while Singapore developed Changi International Airport into an award-winning gateway and neighboring countries raced to compete. We slapped a tax that ended direct flights from the Philippines to Europe, and fell short of compliance with safety standards, which limited even direct flights to the United States.

Today Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are busy regional hubs while the NAIA is congested and flights are routinely delayed by an average of an hour. It takes forever to build secondary airports even in top tourist destinations, with projects often bogged down in corruption scandals.

This inadequacy is surely one of the reasons why the number of foreign visitor arrivals has barely risen from the figures during the Marcos regime.

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Aside from lousy airports and poor air connectivity, accommodations in our country are inadequate, especially for luxury travelers. And what’s available is expensive compared to those of similar quality in neighboring countries. Thailand and Malaysia beat us handily in this area. As a Thai official once told me, our tourism facilities cater mostly to backpackers.

Then there’s the transport infrastructure. We have 7,100 islands, but we lack modern ferries and safe boats for island hopping and exploration. We have not fully exploited our unique attractions as a Pacific archipelago.

On land we lack even decent tour buses. Trains could augment the inadequate land transportation facilities, but we can’t even lay down 10 kilometers of railroad tracks without the project getting derailed by corruption.

Tourism development, if we are to catch up with our neighbors, needs a workable blueprint that can be carried out by agencies working in close coordination. President Duterte, unfortunately, does not see the potential of tourism as an engine of economic growth, one that is inclusive and environment-friendly.

Tourism can fuel economic growth especially in the countryside. But it is a highly competitive industry that requires management by people more competent than the likes of Cesar Montano.

Now our neighbors lack something happening only in the Philippines: mass killings of crime suspects.

There are many other factors that have made the Philippines lag behind neighbors in travel and tourism. The continuing drug-related killings, and the media reports about them, are just the latest additions to the list.


Source: http://www.philstar.com/opinion/2017/03/29/1685598/spooking-tourists

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