Days after I filed in advance our Thursday, 29 June article on our tourism woes, the Department of Tourism unveiled its new tagline “LOVE the Philippines” to coincide with its 50th anniversary, having been elevated by then President Marcos Sr. to Cabinet level, with “Sunshine” Joe Aspiras as its first secretary.
I flew out of the country last Sunday, 25 June, and saw for myself the several problems travelers experienced at NAIA 1, from long check-in lines to long immigration lines.
Mercifully, the travel tax lines were short and quick due to an online payment system introduced during the previous administration of PRRD.
I will not compare the bedlam in our airports with the efficiency of both airport and rail transport systems in the foreign country I am in at present as I write this article.
There is no comparison.
The instant jury is out on whether LOVE is an improvement over the “More Fun” come-on that has endured for the last 12 years after “WOW!” but I prefer to wait for results.
Still, the first thing that came to mind when I learned about the DOT promo launch last week while I was in a First World country was how easy it would be to corrupt the slogan.
What is there to LOVE in the Philippines, a tourist is likely to ask, after the hassle at the airport, then being overcharged by taxi drivers just to endure hours of traffic, then made to pay exorbitant hotel rates compared to most Southeast Asian countries, later having his domestic flights to popular destinations canceled or delayed.
And no amount of smiling “hospitable” (a trait that is no longer as true as before) Filipinos could likely compensate for all the hassles. It ain’t lovable as it is now.
My foreigner friend also observed that LOVE, although universally a feel good message, is no different from “I love NY” where the love is drawn as a heart, which has been copied by so many cities all over the world, ours included.
Still and all, we hope that Secretary Frasco’s promises in her tourism development plan, especially with regard to improving accessibility and infrastructure, among other concerns, will come true.
That’s because no amount of advertising, no amount of promotional gimmicks, can sell what is regarded these days as a “bad” product. Sayang lang.
We have the most beautiful beaches in the world with world-class dive spots, but because of a lack of tourist-friendly infrastructure, our natural beauty is either inaccessible or comparatively expensive.
But as a domestic tourist come-on, LOVE the Philippines may be quite appropriate. Then again, are our officials targeting the domestic, or the foreign market?
From a marketing standpoint, maybe we should look at the travel market in terms of niches we could tap, and create attractive packages for these targets.
Some foreigners love the sun and sand; some prefer to hike and climb mountains. Still a few are into exploring a different culture and cuisine.
Compare us to neighbors Thailand and Malaysia, and see how they use all these niches and make their tourism affordable and accessible.
We cannot be like First World Singapore or even Japan, where expensive man-made attractions are plenty.
Yet whether in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Penang or Hanoi, and even our closest neighbor, Taiwan, the traveler gets big bang for his buck compared to Manila or Palawan, in terms of accommodation, inland transport, or food.
Then there is funding, not just marketing and advertising, but, more importantly, product development, principally accessibility, connectivity, and affordability of travel.
President Marcos Sr. created the Philippine Tourism Authority and gave it extensive power to build tourism infrastructure.
Sadly, most of the infrastructure the PTA built under Marcos were left to disrepair and neglect when President Cory took over.
Then, it’s travel tax collections from outbound travelers were cannibalized through several legislative actions.
40 percent of the travel tax goes to the Commission on Higher Education (CHED); 10 percent to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and the 50 percent remaining is taxed by the BIR, so that in the end, just about 27 percent can be utilized to fund infrastructure.
Worse, legislators with pet “tourism kuno” projects in places where no real tourist attraction exists take their slice of the small pie, so that in the end, funds for real tourism infrastructure are niggardly and long-term planning or product development is possible.
Sen. Dick Gordon, after serving as tourism secretary under President GMA, authored the Tourism Act of 2009, converting the PTA into the TIEZA, which stands for Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority, with the DOT Secretary as the CEO and a presidential appointee is Chief Operating Officer or COO.
Armed with powers to promote private sector investments in designated tourist zones through tax incentives, TIEZA can do much if properly managed.
To its credit, it developed the water and sewerage system in Boracay, later privatized to the Ayala conglomerate.
When President Duterte closed the island because few establishments connected to the TIEZA-built pipelines and many disgorged their detritus into the pristine sea, the agency, together with DPWH, spearheaded the necessary improvements.
Boracay is much better now, thanks to PRRD, Tieza and DPWH, but wait till the local government unit, present or future, allow transgressions of carefully laid out plans and projects.
Outbound travel sustains TIEZA funding, although just about a fourth of total collections from the travel tax is usable, and much of it goes to administrative expenses.
First things first: give it the entire pie of travel tax collections.
CHED should be given its budgetary support from the GAA especially now that tertiary education in state universities and colleges are subsidized by the national government.
The NCCA and the National Museum can be supported by TIEZA on a project basis, not through a lump sum of 10 percent of the travel tax.
But then again, there are too many travel tax exemptions, principally government officials on official travel (or junkets cloaked as official) and our OFWs.
To solve the problem without burdening our OFWs when leaving the country for foreign work, there was a proposal by TIEZA officers under PRRD to streamline the travel tax, by taxing inbound travel, with no exemption, a flat rate of (US) $10 per passenger (P560 more or less), tucked into their ticket.
This was supported by the IATA or the International Air Transport Association, comprising 83 percent of world aviation.
Foreign visitors would not likely mind the $10 appended to their plane fare, especially if our airports are well-run, and returning Filipinos would get a discount, at P560 versus the P1,620 they pay as outbound travel tax.
In fact, Japan adopted the idea, but nothing happened as that would require legislation and the support of our economic managers, and then COVID came in, and whatever funds TIEZA had were co-opted by the DOF to add to the emergency expenses needed to address the pandemic.
That is something for DOT and TIEZA to resurrect, and for Congress and our economic managers to support.
And for all the funds collected to be devoted solely to tourism infrastructure, from planning to product development, along with adequate tax incentives that would attract the private sector, foreign and domestic, to invest in world-class hotels and restaurants.
With so many Filipinos now doing “revenge” travel, and believe me, whether in Japan, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Taiwan, there are legions of our folks traveling these dayHBC BLURB: “Not far away, a witness recounted having seen a group of about 50 people set fire to a brokerage company’s office”
s, saying even that it is cheaper and easier to fly to these nearby destinations than it is to Mindanao or the Visayas.
Travel tax collections have become easier though, and I did not witness long lines at the tax collection counters in the NAIA.
Apparently, payments can now be made online, an improvement made during PRRD’s time.
Critical to tourism, whether in the product development aspect or in promotions, is the active and well-intentioned support of local government units.
The Local Government Code devolved tourism, along with agriculture, health and education, to primary responsibility of LGUs, what with their hefty IRA and now, the Mandanas ruling of the Supreme Court.
In practice over the last 25 or so years since, the Local Government Code has just been used as a tool in fostering and perpetuating family dynasties, and politics has become big business, but for some rara avis of development-oriented mayors and governors.
Secretary Frasco, who understands local government administration very well, should use her influence and power to steer LGUs to the right path insofar as tourism is concerned.
Bring the smiles back into this corner of Asia.
Make it stand out in the competition for tourist dollars in this part of the world, in what is now the Asian century.
That will be the time when travelers to the country will appreciate us, if not LOVE the country to come again and again.
And Filipinos themselves, whether domestic travelers or balikbayans, will truly LOVE the Philippines.