The Philippines has consistently been called one of the most beautiful places in the world. It has everything from world-class beaches good for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing set against the backdrop of stunning sunrises and sunsets. There are peaceful mountains that vary in challenge from gentle hiking grounds to difficult climbs, depending on what adventures the hikers or mountaineers seek. We have a diverse set of cultures that are all imbued with history, folklore and steeped in the arts. Our history and its physical manifestations—churches and forts—is just as rich and a pleasure to explore.
We have wonderful food, a blend that grew out of the cultural crossroads our archipelago was and still is. Yet our tourist arrivals are pegged at 6.4 million or so, as of the end of 2017, lower than our neighbors in the region.
The Department of Tourism (DOT) aims to raise the country’s tourism arrivals to or past the 7 million mark this year and they are looking at inter-agency cooperations where necessary to revive medical tourism, mend environmentally-damaged areas like the extremely popular Boracay island, as well as break new ground and tap culture and history to bring local and foreign tourists of all stripes to new locales and new experiences in this Pearl of the Orient Seas.
Tourism Secretary Wanda Corazon Teo and two of her assistant secretaries, Frederick Alegre and Eden David, took time to sit down with the Philippines Graphic for an interview.
Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo: Now that we are here, we can tell you what the plans of the DOT are for the coming years. At least you will know what we want to do for as long as I am still the secretary of Tourism, until my term ends in 2022.
When I started last July, 2016, the first project was the Miss Universe (pageant). At first I was still hesitant because, when I was approached, I had just assumed my seat. I’d only been DOT Secretary for four days when I was approached by the Miss Universe (organizers) at medyo malaki masyado ang amount, so I went to see the President and the President said “go ahead,” for as long as walang perang gagastahin ang gobyerno. So we started with the Miss Universe (pageant) and it did do well.
After that there were other projects that made it possible for us to raise the number of tourist arrivals. Of course, I went around the country. I didn’t stay here in the Philippines, so I traveled. I went to see the tour operators and the media people abroad and asked them “what is it that you want? How come you have tourist arrivals?” I talked to the (tourism) ministers. “how come,” I asked “the Philippines, does not reach the same level of arrivals you do?” So they were telling us what they did.
I was comparing the Philippines (to) Thailand. They are under Martial Law and there is unrest there, and yet they were able to hit their arrivals target. I asked tour operators to come here. I asked media people, the bloggers, to do a write-up about the Philippines.
The big impact was the Miss Universe pageant. With this, we really got plenty of exposure. They learned about our country. There were bookings after that, of course, the candidates were very nice. The Miss Universe (organizers) talked to us again, actually. They wanted us to host Miss Universe again. How many months lang, sabi nila kami na naman uli. But then, when I asked the President, sabi niya, “let’s focus on the ASEAN, kasi, 50 years, medyo ang bigat noon. So nahinto.”
DOT opened its “More Fun in the Philippines Farms” program last year. Do you promote farm tourism? Do you see it as the next sunrise industry of the tourism sector?
Assistant Secretary Eden David: Indeed this is a wonderful opportunity for the Secretary to share with everyone that one of the major things that she would like to put emphasis on is also helping the marginalized sector. One of the thrusts of the Secretary is to uplift the conditions of the people in the countryside.
One thing we also acknowledge is that the Philippines is largely agricultural, and the potential for domestic tourism is really huge when it comes to farm tourism. With this venue where the Secretary can reach out to a larger number of people in the countryside, then there will be changes in the kind of life they’d be able to live, provided they are given the opportunity to increase their income base through farm tourism. This is why it is, indeed a sunrise industry.
Secretary Teo: when I took over as Secretary of Tourism, I really wanted to uplift the Filipino people, especially in the countryside. That is my prerogative. As Tourism Secretary I am able to uplift the lives of Filipinos. Coming from the private sector, especially in the province of Davao, I always see farmers and fishermen. These are the people I want to help. I want to promote destinations that are not yet too well-known, because if you can develop these areas, you can help the people. That’s what I want to do, not just focus on developed destinations[that] can stand on their own. What about Siquijor? How about the other places that are not well-covered by environmental protection? Those are the places I want to focus on.
We have a very diverse set of cultures in the Philippines and I don’t see this played up enough in our tourism thrusts, because every local community does have its own poetry, its own dances. How is the DOT addressing this now, moving forward, and over the next five years?
Secretary Teo: Remember, Baguio has been nominated as a UNESCO Most Creative City. We’re focusing on that. We recognize that this is true all over the country, all over (Baguio) City.
Are you coordinating with the NCCA and CCP?
Assistant Secretary Frederick Alegre: Actually, yes, because of that UNESCO award, the Secretary has given instructions to the regional directors to really look at the heritage. Recently, I recall that the Secretary was in Bukidnon and they all wore the native attire.
Our history sites also? Our military sites?
Assistant Secretary Alegre: You will see that these are now developing into tourism destinations. Just in Baguio, because I was there recently, they’re really reviving these sites under their Rev-Bloom tourism campaign.
In fact, the Secretary instructed that walking be restored. One notable project is that will put up signs to tell you how far it is to the cathedral, and how many calories you will burn. The Secretary is also appealing to local transport groups regarding the pollution problem. We have to work on that so people can resume walking.
Also, the Secretary has done so much for Intramuros, perhaps she would like to talk about that. Ma’am?
Secretary Teo: Actually, we focused on Intramuros. When tourists come to the Philippines, especially when they come to Manila, where will they go? We really worked on Intramuros so that now there are so many activities going on in Intramuros.
What about places like Binondo, because these are places that are known for their landmarks and their food, but traffic is a nightmare?
Assistant Secretary Alegre: We have a familiarization tour for the National Capital Region this month. We will invite you. It will end in Binondo on Chinese New Year. This year, there are about 30 trips that the Secretary has ordered to go visit emerging destinations.
Secretary Teo: I already told all the regional directors that, starting this year. Last year, I went around the country, outside the country—around Asia—to really know the reasons why we don’t get that (many) tourists. So, I already know that.
Now we will focus on the regions. I will be going to the regions. I will be helping them create new offerings. They need newness, new offerings, they need innovative packages. So we will help them, including trainings and foreign-speaking trainings for tour guides. That is what the tour operators abroad taught me.
A lot of tourists who come here have said that “we find this a beautiful place all over, from top to bottom. Our problem is access”—ease of access by road, by air, by sea. A lot of them would compare us to Thailand, but in Thailand, it is easy to get from point to point even with very heavy traffic. There are sufficient transportation and guidance systems, so if you go to a tourism office, people can tell you if you can walk there, take a car, take a tuk-tuk. Here we have much better features, but access is a problem. How do you intend to address that?
Secretary Teo: We are an archipelago country, so people come here by air. That’s why they say that we are slightly more expensive compared with other countries. You can go to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur by land. That’s the reason why Singapore has so many tourist arrivals, because of their arrivals by land. Here, they have to travel by air. we’re not linked to a mainland.
We’ve been asking the airlines to help us by opening more routes, not just to Manila, with 900,000 additional seats. We asked them to not only focus on Manila, because Manila is already rather saturated. We are asking them to look at the secondary airports, like Cebu, Clark, Palawan and, also, Davao.
Assistant Secretary Alegre: Binanggit ni Secretary na 900,000 additional seats. That converts to the millions.
Secretary Teo: There are also lots of cruise ships that are now coming in, especially to Boracay. We are also looking at developing additional ports.
What is the cost of putting up these additional facilities, like more airports and additional seaports?
Secretary Teo: You will have to ask (Transportation) Secretary Tugade. Please help us, because, kung hindi maayos ang airports natin, papaano na ang turista [If our airports are not fixed, what will become of our tourists], and if we can build them, we need additional ports.
I was in Boracay because we were responding to people asking “DOT what are you doing? Boracay is flooded and filthy.” Honestly, when I was in the private sector as a travel agent, Boracay already had problems. There was one tour guide who told me that tourists who swam there really complained, saying the waters of Boracay were dirty and made their skin itch.
So I asked [Environment] Secretary [Roy] Cimatu to go with us to Boracay and check what the problem really was, because the DOT and DENR were taking the blame for them. When we went there, we sat down for the first time with the mayor and the governor, who were actually not on good terms, then we told them what problems we found.
We found out that the problem was that the TIEZA had built drainage—and this is supposed to be for rainwater only—that some hotels connected their sewage pipes to, so their sewage goes straight into the sea, when they should have connected those pipes to the sewage treatment plant.
I told them that I am sorry, but whoever, those who violated environment laws, we will have to implement the law. We have to fine them, whatever. I have passed that on to the DENR, because that falls under their purview. There is one hotel that I don’t want to name, that was built on wetlands, which is not allowed. I have to report all this to the President.
This hotel is already operating?
Secretary Teo: It’s already operating. It’s already there. We cannot just tear it down because it is a big hotel.
We will ask the President to create an Executive Order to define the committees that will head Boracay—save Boracay: DOT, DENR, DPWH and DOJ—and we will all have a part. We will define our role, and the roles of the other agencies, then we will present it to the President for the EO.
While we are waiting for the EO, we will start doing something. We will be going there once a month, to really check. I felt really challenged when a stakeholder said “you know, during the time of (former DOT Secretary) Mina Gabor, the Secretary would come here, have a picture taken, then leave. Hanggang salita lang daw [All they gave us were words].
I told them: Try me. I am not a politician. I am from the private sector and I will really do what I said. We will monitor Boracay. We will be going there. We will be checking. So lahat talaga, aayusin natin. We will focus on Boracay. G