Ramon Jimenez unleashed a bevy of catchy soundbites, unsurprising given his well deserved reputation as a top ad man, during his press conference announcing his ascension to the Secretary of Tourism. The most lasting, and in some ways odd, was his assertion that the Philippines should be as easy to sell as Chickenjoy. Which, as we know, is one of the most popular items on the Jollibee menu.
While it was not his intention, and likely should not be viewed as such, I cannot help but feel that equating Chickenjoy with tourism marketing actually illuminates of the chief failings of previous Philippine branding attempts: Their kitschiness and subsequent failure to resonate internationally. For all of the adulation Wow Philippines seems to receive, it was a lousy campaign. Boring, uninspired, generic, and yes more than a little kitschy. While we may have liked it in the Philippines, internationally it barely made a blip. It offered little to no insights in the Philippines and failed to present a compelling vision of the country. To put it another way, what excites the Filipino may not impress the foreigner.
With Jimenez’s advertising experience I hope that conceptual shortfall will finally be addressed. Along side Jimenez was outgoing Secretary of Tourism Alberto Lim. Who, for all the criticisms hurled at him by the curiously constructed Tourism Congress, was one of the best men for the job. His focus was not on branding, but on developing both the infrastructure and product necessary for compelling branding to take place.
In all of the on-going discussions about tourism, and contrary to certain ‘tourism’ advocates, it is not all about branding; at least not yet. That is where Bertie Lim was quite successful, and arguably ground-breaking. He focused on putting in place the structures necessary to develop tourism products, while at the same time fighting for easy access to them.
At the risk of being contrarian, we have the raw materials, but we have not developed compelling products; the type of attractions that entice people to fly halfway around the world to visit. And the ones that we do have, like for example Boracay, we have allowed to be become so over commercialized that they have become, well, unappetizing. If anything, Bertie Lim’s failures as a tourism secretary are precisely what Mon Jimenez can address: Communication. Jimenez is adept at concise, and inspiring rhetoric; an area where Lim struggled.
Though, what I hope lasts long after Lim’s resignation is the projects that were conceptualized, and put into motion in places like Intramuros. There they are attempting to revitalized the master plan, and approach tourism development, I would say, properly. Intramuros Administration is trying to connect with the locals to become tourism partners, while putting together plans to work with leading businesses and non-profit organizations to develop select sites in Intramuros. Other countries and cities, such as San Antonio in Texas, have aptly demonstrated that successful tourism development has to be a public-private affair. If done well, the re-development of Intramuros can act as a model for the rest of the country.
Nick Joaquin offered the idea that “Nationalism begins as a local piety.” To extend that thought, so does tourism. Much like good governance and a sense of national belonging, tourism development fails when it is imposed from the top; especially in the arena of heritage and culture. I would argue that are fixation on ‘national’ heritage has actually undermined heritage conservation and development on a local level. Joaquin believed that nationalism, the idea of an encompassing community, begins in the neighborhoods and localities. That, for example, is the enduring power of the fiesta in a locality; it forever connects the person to their hometown. The fiesta is one of those compelling tourist products, precisely because original fiestas in the Philippines tell the story of a locality. Whether it be the moriones or the ati-atihan, the history and development of the fiesta is intrinsically rooted in that place. However, as opposed to developing and supporting existing fiestas, we have seen the rise of ‘manufactured’ fiestas. Products that completely ignore that heritage, in favor of creating tourist ‘attractions’. One prominent example is Makati’s Caracol Festival, an event that began in 1989.
Developed to remind of the richness of the environment and promote its preservation, it became the official fiesta of Makati. In essence, a fiesta with barely twenty years under its belt and with little historical and heritage connection to Makati has become the focus of their festival calendar and tourism efforts.
While, on the other hand, fiestas that have existed for centuries in St. Peter and Paul Church are largely ignored or forgotten. For example, the Bailes de los Arcos is unique and quaint; a fiesta that reaches back to the very founding of Makati. It is heritage, it is beauty, and it is culturally rich. As a result, it has its own niche among fiestas in the Philippines. Yet, in its place is promoted a manufactured event, with meager cultural attributes beyond pretty colors and fireworks that go boom. By forgoing a long-standing heritage tradition in favor of a manufactured event, Makati ultimately has turned its back on its history. The Bailes de los Arcos could be an event, if properly managed, which would define Makati as a cultural center (along with other heritage resources). Instead their official festival is a generic event which offers little in the way of cultural and historical branding. It is bland and generic, like so much of tourism and tourism branding in this country.
Lost in the tourism discussion is an answer to a very complex question: What makes us Filipino? To phrase it other ways, what sets us apart? What makes us compelling? The typical answers usually encompass mindless platitudes: “We are nice” or “We have pretty beaches.” Well and good, but other countries have nice people (especially when public service can be taught, like in Hong Kong) and beautiful beaches abound.
Our efforts to ‘brand’ ourselves has to run deeper; it has to connect to the historical and heritage realities that set us apart on the world’s stage. That involves a difficult shift in perspective, but it is one that is necessary if we are truly going to create a compelling tourism vision for the Philippines. Because right now we are only thinking about our country, about who we are as a people and how we can export that vision, along wholly simplistic terms.
We consistently look to successful models abroad, whether it be Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico, or Spain, and try to emulate their marketing, at how they sell themselves, and consider that the answer to all of our tourism problems. We ignore the heart and passion with which they embrace their national and regional histories; warts and all. And that is the key, reconciliation and love of self. When a people understands, accepts, and loves their heritage and culture that sense becomes tangible, and quite compelling. It is within the midst of those rich local connections that the building blocks for enticing international advertising campaigns are found.
Regionalism has long been touted as one of the key flaws in our national polity. And while that might likely hold true when it comes to politics, the opposite holds true in terms of tourism. Our multiculturalism is a strength and can be attraction for visitors. No one wants to visit a homogenous country; a quick review of the major tourist destinations in the worlds proves this.
And we are far from being a homogeneous nation.
Each of our regions has different flavors, fiestas, sights, ecology, even architectural influences. That means different encounters are readily available for a traveler. This situation marks us as a compelling tourist destination; if those differences are properly managed and exploited.
To be frank, there is little point or inducement to travel around a country when the cuisine in Bohol is the same as what is found in Manila or the shopping in Baguio is the same as Cagayan de Oro. Yet that type of homogeneity is exactly where the Philippines is moving towards.
In Baguio, Session Road has been killed and the primary shopping destination is SM Baguio (which also dominates the landscape). The same stores that are found in SM Makati are in SM Baguio, even the same restaurants. Malls have become the center of culture in the Philippines. Our concept of urban renewal revolves around malls: Build it and they will come. That is another perspective on a local level that has to change, else we will lose the multicultural experiences that makes the Philippines so rich and fascinating.
To move away from that, and avoid mistakes such as Makati, we need to start taking stock of our heritage resources on a local level. Those resources can be anything from built heritage (like churches and homes) to intangible heritage (like weaving, or epics). Regional cuisines, fiestas, all of it has to be catalogued, supported, preserved, and utilized in branding efforts. But that on-the-ground effort has to take place first and foremost. Only in pockets has it actually taken place.
In other forums I have advocated for the creation and development of attached cultural workers (an idea initially pushed by Felice Sta. Maria) on an LGU level. Cultural workers who are provided with the necessary tools to catalogue, evaluate, and preserve their locality’s cultural and heritage resources would be a boon. And from that base craft tourism master plans, in conjunction with private enterprise and national agencies, to preserve and utilize those resources.There are relevant laws out there, for example the recently passed National Cultural Heritage Law of 2009, that can aid in this process. But it remains unimplemented and relatively unknown outside of certain circles.
Ideas like heritage zones, listing of local heritage on national lists, and so on can change the landscape of our country’s preserved national patrimony. Cultural workers could act as mediators in this process. All of this talk of exciting and bringing tourism back to the people in concept is absolutely correct. We have to bring out heritage back to a local level; that process will positively redound in our tourism and branding efforts.
Taking a step back, we have the raw components necessary to craft the Philippines into one of the premiere tourist destinations in the world: multiculturalism, natural resources, and compelling heritage. So, while soundbites and ad man proclamations like “Chickenjoy!” are great for public relations domestically in the media, they do very little to address the realities on the ground. That is the backend development that the Department of Tourism needs to help push in cooperation with relevant government agencies and private groups. From what I have heard Jimenez seems to have the ability to grasp and handle both the front and back ends of tourism development. That is exactly what the Philippines needs at this juncture.
Tourism, as it has always been, is a multi-sectoral endeavor that must begin to develop on a local level. To create worthy and compelling branding we first have to have, not only the underlying product, but an intrinsic understanding of those products. Right now, and only in small pockets, do have we that. As I mentioned, Intramuros could well become a model. But so could Cebu, or Vigan, or Baguio, or Iloilo City, or Palawan. In a nation like ours, the possibilities are almost endless. Properly exploiting and leveraging these resources makes the job of the ad man even easier. That is when it becomes as easy to sell as fried chicken.