Heritage and forgoing fast food tourism

Old Intramuros. Image from Wikipedia.

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.


Nik writes primarily about Philippine culture and history. His twitter account is @iwriteasiwrite and his primary blog can be found at www.iwriteasiwrite.tumblr.com

  • GabbyD

    i dont remember anything i’d want along session, except go to church and eat at the wet market (thats at the bottom, no?).

    for stuff, we’d be interested in weaving, furniture and other wood work. but that stuff can be found along the roads, if only coz the rent is negligible. tama ba?

    i’d also be interested in strawberries, but those are found at the wetmarket, or even at the farms. 

    • Nik


      Apologies for not responding, it seems that my original comment to this post got sucked into the internet somewhere.

      Anyway, was designed to be a main pedestrian thoroughfare in Baguio; the center of town if you will. In that regard it was one of the prime heritage avenues in the Philippines; no more. Ask any old Baguio dweller and they will have stories of walking up and down Session Road, visiting shops, restaurants and whatever along the way. Now, that feel and opportunity is lost amid a cacophony of traffic and over commercialized establishments. As a heritage avenue it is dead.

      Now it winds its way up to an SM Baguio. All points lead to SM. I’ll quote something Augusto Villalon wrote about Baguio:

      “A network of winding roads connected main points of the city—the City Hall overlooking a large park with a lagoon (now known as Burnham Park), Mansion House (the summer residence of the Philippine president), Camp John Hay (former American military rest and recreation facility), and Teachers Camp.
      Session Road, the city commercial center that leads uphill in a straight line from the Baguio Market now connects to a new mall at its top end. It is likewise well-known throughout the Philippines as part of the Baguio image. Today a gigantic new mall at the top of Session Road now seriously threatens the future of its small commercial establishments that have been there for generations.The distinct Baguio identity of mountainous terrain with green-and-white architecture nestled under pine trees is fast vanishing. The single largest remaining ensemble of that identity survives in Teachers Camp. Although no other city in Asia or in the Philippines has an identity like Baguio’s, the identity today is vanishing rapidly.”

      • GabbyD

        so i’m still not clear on the facts. 

        if before sm, there were shops, NOW, there are NO SHOPS along the road? what replaced them?

        • Nik

          Locally owned businesses are being forced out. That is part of the issue. Which connects to my comment on homogeneity.

          As well, as we keep saying, Session Road is no longer pleasant to walk along. It used to connect the city as a pedestrian road. No longer.

          • GabbyD

            yes, they are being forced out. but replaced by…? 

            listen, i sympathize with what you are writing here. BUT, none of it makes sense until you cite some specific examples. 

            hopefully some specific examples with historical significance. 

            for example: Shop X, which is the first shop to sell Y in baguio, has been closed due to competition.

            this goes to the homogeneity of the street.

            the pleasantness for pedestrians is also quite vague. if its about traffic — you can limit traffic to be one way (going up). that can help. you can even close it off to traffic.

            but this is conceptually distinct from the existence of SM on the road.  its also separate from the homogeneity (or not) of the street.

          • Nik


            You are being a bit myopic. You’re arguing that none of what I wrote makes sense if I can’t cite a single store on Session Road that was closed because of SM? I think if that is what you are taking away from my essay then you are missing the point; which I guess is proven by your line of questioning.

            For more specific examples, I cited Makati and Boracay. For other streets and districts how about Escolta, Sta. Ana, and Malate? Do they meet your requirements for my essay to make sense?

            So, to clarify, I never said that a store has to be a heritage store to survive; I said it should be local and express the arts, culture, food, and ethnicity of that place. Are you going to argue that SM anywhere does that? I am referring to homogeneity across the country. Should Baguio feel exactly the same as Makati? Should it look and feel the same?

            I can cite heritage experts, such as Augusto Villalon or Butch Zialcita or even Bencab (who owns Cafe by the Ruins), as to the state of heritage and culture in Baguio. Or even my own experiences. In symposiums and discussions they have described what is happening in Baguio; the loss of heritage and architecture. How about a more recent example: the destruction of American era structures in Camp John Hay.

            Now onto SM, which I gather you seem to support. To construct that mall they first tore down the Pines Hotel, a historic structure, and razed down pine trees to make way for it. As I mentioned, heritage can be both human and natural; the construction of SM on that location damaged both. Not to mention the fact that Baguio was designed to take advantage of the unique views the location has to offer. Do structures SM add or detract from that? Do they merge and mimic the local architecture?

            And no, the homogeneity of the street, the loss of local businesses, the destruction of local heritage, the over-pollution, the inability to walk freely and easily on Session Road, and the location of SM are all part of the issue; they all stem from a lack of respect and cognizance of the features that make a locality unique within a nation. Is Baguio still a walking city? Is it still the City of Pines? Is it still a park city? Is the original architecture being preserved and enhanced?

            That is the point I was driving at in that portion of the essay. In no uncertain terms should Baguio look, feel, taste, and sound the same as Manila, or Makati, or downtown Cebu.

  • Joe America



    Another thought
    provoking piece. I think a tourist destination has to be “big” to
    entice a traveler to visit. I don’t know what the plans are for the Intramuros.
    It would have to be sensitive to the history of the place, yet be sufficiently
    self-contained to lend itself to the kind of restaurant/boardwalk atmosphere of
    the former Bay Walk, which I personally enjoyed (the live bands; dinner under
    the stars) until it was removed because residents across the street complained
    about the noise. The Intramuros does not have that problem perhaps. But I
    think, on its own, it may not attract overseas visitors. It would have to be a
    part of a greater Manila excursion that would perhaps have cathedrals, museums,
    or other attractions to make that the reason for visiting.


    The big problem is
    money, and what it would take to get so many places upgraded to world class.
    That is also the problem with outlying areas. There are indeed places that
    could sell (Cebu’s resort row on Lapu Lapu Island). Surfing in Surigao. But
    there isn’t much dessert to go with the main course.


    “product” of which you speak requires a lot of work. But the idea of
    looking at things as “product” is a superb step one.

    • Joe America

      stupid spacing, cut and paste and plaster all over the place

    • Nik


      Thanks! You touch on a great point in that tourist destinations have to be more than just one focal point; there has to be a diversification in attractions. Or at least on major anchor, with accessible diversions to maintain tourist interest. 

      With regards to Intramuros, I think the long-term plans within the walls are attempting to address that. There are plans to put up new museums, shopping districts, art houses, arts and crafts centers, and so on. Of course what remains to be seen is if that becomes a reality. I do see them trying to be cognizant of the history (including the architecture); at least they were under Lim and the current head Jose Capistrano. Jimenez’s pro-Intramuros proclamations at least bode well for those projects.

      On Manila, there are plans to finally connect Intramuros, to the National Museum Complex, and finally Luneta Park (there is an ongoing renovation there) to create a sort of tourism triangle. What they will do with the traffic, a major disincentive for that area, is a looming question.

      Yes, money remains an issue; that is why I am favor of public-private partnerships, within reason of course. Boracay, I think, acts as a warning for other areas of the dangers of unchecked development. Government should offer both incentives and structures to promote private investment and parameters to ensure that development is done properly.

      And yes, lots of work to be had; but hopefully perspectives will start to shift!

      • Joe America

        Sounds good to me. I think of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, or Old Town in Pasadena, California USA, and imagine the Intramuros as having that feel of youth and vigor and fun. Old parts of old cities revitalized, through private investment supported by city fathers. I’d certainly pay a visit on a trip to Manila, figuring there would be a good choice of places to eat, and having fun watching people.

        • Nik

          Those are some excellent models for what can be achieved here. Even the Waterfront in Chicago or New Orleans.

          I just hope they are able to go through with the redevelopment. There is hope for Intramuros, lets see if it comes to fruition and can spill over to the rest of the area.

    • cocoy

      My understanding of the tourism market— and the tourism push is that the government markets first to Filipinos, and second to everyone else.  What I’m trying to say is, I think the government thinks Tourism in the Philippines is mostly powered by Filipinos, and not foreigners.  

  • GabbyD

    out of curiousity: what used to be found in session road that no longer can be found there?

    • Manuelbuencamino

      Me. I stopped going to Session Road when the air became unbreathable.

      • Nik

        Exactly. The difference, even from when I was a kid, is striking.

    • Baguio is okay for a time for its cold mountain air and woodland scenes, but if one would prefer biodiversity like me I recommend island-hopping in my province Albay specifically islands of the town Bacacay facing the Pacific Ocean. All hinterlands but rich in coral reefs, white beaches, and woodland scenes. Although lacking in modern amenities, boat rents are very cheap and sea foods abundant and very cheap too, the cost of staying there if you’re with someone who knows his way around is a pittance compared to staying in say Boracay, Palawan, or Puerto Galera, not to mention the comfort of staying with hospitable people, the natives there like me, eherm, who will be glad to assist in taking care of your welfare and not of your pockets, heheh. The downsides are the cancellations of flight going to and from the airport in Legaspi City during heavy downpour, and, travelling by car or by bus which could take more than a ten-hour drive due to bad roads along the way.

      But the sights and ‘sounds’ is worth it when you’re already there. Try it. 

      • Nik

        Yup. So many possibilities and experiences in the Philippines.