Tourism continues to be a promising sector of the economy. It employs more than 3 million Filipinos (mostly in passenger transport segment of the industry). It contributes roughly 3 percent to the country’s GDP. It showcases the beautiful and exotic hotspots of the country. If the country is composed of more than 7,000 islands and islets, it means there are also more than 7,000 different ways to promote tourism in the country. There are dollar opportunities but also significant challenges to confront.
Tourist arrivals in the Philippines registered a 16.5 percent growth in the 1st semester of 2009, according to the Department of Tourism. The country’s top 16 tourist destinations attracted close to 4 million visitors (800,000 international tourists and 3 million domestic tourists). The DOT claims this is an achievement noting that the country managed to improve tourist arrivals despite the spread of A(H1N1) virus and the worsening global financial crisis. But the tourism numbers are still low if we compare the number of tourists in neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
What is the top tourist destination in the Philippines this year? Boracay? No! Guess again. Cebu? No! Palawan? No!
Camarines Sur is now the most popular tourist attraction in the country. More than 900,000 domestic and foreign tourists visited the province during the 1st semester of the year. The local government’s investment in wakeboarding tourism has yielded very positive results. This success story can inspire other local governments to draft and implement innovative and exciting tourism programs. Camarines Sur was not among the top tourist destinations last year.
Cebu is the 2nd most popular tourist hotspot in the country. It is also the favorite destination of foreign tourists. More than 320,000 foreigners and half a million local tourists visited the province during the 1st semester of the year.
The very famous Boracay Island only ranks 3rd. This is somewhat surprising and alarming. Surprising because everybody assumes Boracay is the most visited tourist attraction in the country. Everybody who plans to relax and spend money wants to stay in that world-famous island. Alarming because Boracay is already experiencing sanitation problems despite attracting only 380,000 tourists. It seems the tiny sparkling island is not ready to receive too many visitors. We need to promote other island gems. Boracay should not suffer the fate of Baguio City. Baguio used to be the country’s beautiful summer capital; the refreshing mountain vacation resort. Now it is overcrowded and dirty. Sagada is the new Baguio.
Puerto Princesa in Palawan and Bohol also attracted a bigger number of tourists this year. How? They promoted diving, ecotourism, birdwatching, adventure and incentive tourism. Dive tourism grew by 60 percent this year. Adventure tourism is the buzzword today. For example, spelunking in the Sohotan Caves in Basey, Samar. In Danao, Bohol, adventure tourism features a thrilling 45 meters plunge, 1km suislide, caving, river tubing, rappelling, kayaking and root climbing.
Where do international tourists come from? Korea (600,000), United States (580,000), and Japan (360,000). The fastest growing tourist markets come from Russia, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam.
DOT should not just promote the Philippines as a unique travelling destination. It should also aim to improve the country’s tourism competitiveness. The Philippines was given a dismal ranking of 86 in the 2009 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index report of the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Singapore scored 10 in the tourism competitiveness index, Malaysia 32, Thailand 39, and Indonesia 81.
The Philippines scored lowest in ASEAN in terms of infrastructure competitiveness. The country also fared badly in safety and security (kidnapping?), health and hygiene (coliform? lack of clean public toilets? By the way, Dagupan has the most number of clean public toilets in the country), ground transport infrastructure, tourism infrastructure, ICT infrastructure, and availability of qualified labor (shortage of tourism graduates that can be employed in managerial positions). On the other hand, the Philippines scored high in cultural resources and price competitiveness.
The Philippine government should be worried with the lower score of natural resources index. The lower ranking reflects the inadequate measures adopted by the government in addressing the negative impact of tourism in preserving our pristine natural resources. Promoting tourism to generate dollar revenues must be pursued without destroying our cultural and natural treasures.
Tourism activities also engender prostitution, children and women trafficking, illegal drug trade and labor exploitation. Steps must be undertaken to prevent the spread of these criminal activities. Pedophiles must be punished. Foreign tourists should be compelled to respect and obey our laws and customs.
The DOT is now promoting wellness programs that include medical tourism. It is not wrong for hospitals to develop medical packages that will benefit foreigners but they should not abandon and reject poor and sick Filipinos. It is not wrong to build retirement villages for foreigners in the rural areas but the government must also address the housing needs of homeless and landless Filipinos.
The bulk of DOT’s budget for promotions is focused on international tourists. This is understandable since the government wants to earn more tourist dollars. But the DOT should not forget that domestic tourism significantly increased this year. This means we can rely on our kababayans to expand the tourism industry. Because of the lingering financial crisis, we can’t depend too much on foreign markets. Filipinos should be encouraged to visit the different islands of the country.