In a disconcerting double-whammy, the Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International Airport was voted the worst airport “for sleeping in” on the same week that Air France-KLM announced a phasing out of its Manila-Amsterdam route.
A report by Philstar.com said, “Last year, NAIA was voted the worst airport in Asia and the fifth worst in the world. It was the seventh worst airport in the world in 2009, according to the website <sleepinginairports.net>.”
Meanwhile, Business World Online reported that the country’s only direct connection to Europe will be discontinued “due to issues with the country’s taxes.”
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This comes at the heels of what has been largely perceived as a positive development in the tourism sector, just shortly after the appointment of advertising “rock star” Ramon Jimenez as tourism secretary. Jimenez’s teams have been credited for some of the Philippines’ best advertising campaigns (he cites “Love yourself” by Selecta as one of his favorites), and he himself had expressed confidence the Philippines can attract up to 10 million tourists annually by 2016.
During the October 8 episode of Boy Abunda’s Bottomline, when I had been fortunate enough to join the discussion as a “Bottomliner”, the panel asked Sec. Jimenez a lot of its burning questions about branding the Philippines, about different aspects of tourism, and about his plans as tourism secretary. (Watch the online version HERE; just make sure to hide the ads to view the video.) His responses showed a clear understanding of the product he was trying to sell, the markets he was trying to tap, the communication vehicles we were going to use, the changing contexts of global tourism, and the demands of heading the tourism bureaucracy.
More than all these, he showed a clear and sincere love for his country that sometimes seems absent from tired and jaded government bureaucrats. His eyes would sparkle whenever he spoke of our gifts as a Filipino people (and you would see this on-screen), and his voice seemed to exude confidence and, as I had relayed to my fellow Bottomliners then, wisdom. I also remarked that Sec. Jimenez’s statements were nakakakilig in that he seemed to know how to woo his market. He was a well-versed, well-armed suitor, and he was ready to take on the job of romancing the market.
However, tourism is not just about romance. It is not just about the allure of a locale (whether based on a glossy brochure or on word-of-mouth), or the hospitality and warmth of its people, its culinary treasures, or its many shopping and dining haunts. It is more than just the sum of its natural wonders and its UNESCO World Heritage Sites. If tourism were just about all the beautiful things that a country had to offer, we would be top on any traveler’s list–because we DO have EVERYTHING that a tourist would want to enjoy on a well-earned vacation.
Unfortunately, we also have MANY of the things that would drive ANYONE away from ANY country: an inefficient bureaucracy, a horrible public transport system, heavily polluted streets, chaotic urban areas, beggars and street urchins loitering on the streets, crime, corruption–name it, we probably have it.
When my turn came to ask a “Bottomline question”, I asked this (and I paraphrase for clarity):
A lot of the challenges to our tourism experience here are peace and order, public transportation, immigration, airports, taxes, pollution, and the destruction of our natural and cultural treasures. These do not fall within the mandate of the Department of Tourism. How does he intend to bring together all of the other stakeholders outside of tourism to address these concerns that affect tourism in the country?
There wasn’t enough time to delve on this question, but Sec. Jimenez’s short answer to this was that if the tourism department does its job well enough to bring in the demand (of tourists), then the other departments would wake up to the reality that they had to do their jobs well enough to keep the tourists coming back.
I wasn’t too happy about not having time to talk about this issue, but I’ll go back to this point later and first show you a different example.
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At the recently held 1Malaysia Gala Dinner, Malaysian Tourism Minister Dato’ Sri Dr. Ng Yen Yen spoke to a Philippine audience of tour operators, airlines, travel agents, and media about the many things that make Malaysia a great travel destination. She spoke–in a truly engaging and electric manner, I might add–about the cultural diversity that makes “Malaysia, Truly Asia”, about its many world-class destinations and facilities, its colorful and vibrant festivals, its focused and targeted events, among many others.
“We would like to see more Filipino tourists to come to our country to study, to visit, to spend their honeymoon, to hold meetings here, to just simply get away and even to retire. I invite you all to visit Malaysia and witness sights and sounds that make Malaysia truly Asia.”
“The Time is Now, The Place is Malaysia,” she concluded.
On the microphone and all across the room, Dato’ Sri Dr. Ng was like an astute salesman–knowing exactly what to say at the right moment, captivating your attention and holding it at the palm of her hand, then going for the close. She wanted to get YOU to come to HER country to spend YOUR dollars (or ringgit) there, and she knew EXACTLY what she wanted to say that would make your mouth WATER over Malaysia. From the way she looked to the way she spoke and delivered her message, Dato’ Sri Dr. Ng was clear and focused, her message, compelling.
But there’s more to Malaysia than a great tourism slogan and a great marketing package that has brought in over 24 million tourists to its doorstep in 2010–almost close to the number of its own population of over 28 million people. Its various programs are cohesive and well-packaged–from Education, Sport, and Agro-Tourism, to Malaysia’s “Go2Homestay” program, to its “Malaysia My Second Home” program–over 300 categories of goods are classified as duty-free, and there’s a consistency of policy that makes the business of travel predictable and convenient for any traveler.
Plus, the Minister said, taking a swipe at the Philippines’ peace and order situation, “Prosperity only comes with peace. In any country, conflict brings no prosperity.”
The numbers speak for themselves. In just over a decade, Malaysia has more than tripled its tourist arrivals, starting with 7.9 million tourists in 1999, when the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” campaign was launched, to 24.6 million in 2012. Tourism receipts have grown over seven times in a decade, from MYR8.6 billion (approx. USD2.76 billion) in 1999, to MYR56.5 billion (USD18.1 billion) in 2010. According to the Minister’s presentation, “tourism contributes USD330 million a week to the economy of Malaysia, making tourism the 2nd largest foreign exchange earner in Malaysia. In 2009 and 2010, Malaysia ranked 9th in the Top 10 Most Traveled To Countries, being only one of the two Asian countries included in the list released by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)”
And all this, Dato’ Sri Dr. Ng says, was achieved with a tourism budget that has remained unchanged since 1999.
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Folks, our problem isn’t just branding; it isn’t just the lack of marketing bucks, either. The problem of the Philippines, as Sec. Jimenez himself had pointed out during the Bottomline interview, is this: “We haven’t really acted like a tourism country.”
We’ve got an airport that doesn’t look like it wants to welcome visitors and make them stay; we’ve got a terrible public transport system and public infrastructure that discourages people from exploring any town or city in this country; we’ve got a tax regime and a business climate that discourages investments; we tear down historical landmarks instead of preserving them; we’ve got corruption; we’ve got garbage. In short: aside from our innate creativity, our laughter, and the genuine warmth of our people, we’ve given foreigners many reasons to stay away from us, from the level of policy formulation all the way to policy execution. It’s poor governance over the last few decades that has made us a weak tourism brand.
This isn’t to say that we’re doomed to fail. We’re not. With an advertising legend like Sec. Jimenez at the helm of the Department of Tourism and a technocrat like Sec. Mar Roxas on top of the Department of Transportation and Communications, among some other bright spots in the bureaucracy, there IS hope for boosting Philippine tourism and for making it work for all of us. But we’ve got to get our acts together–and we’ve got to move as a “tourism country”, as ONE COUNTRY. Our government bureaucrats have got to let go of their little fiefdoms and start acting for the good of this one brand called “The Philippines.”
We’ve got a mountain of work cut out for us. But, well, I’ve always believed that if you wanted something badly enough, you’d be able to move mountains. We’ve GOT to want THIS one badly enough. I know I do.