Next tourism secretary

With the current tourism department secretary resigning this August, the public clamor is palpable.

Several names have been floated as possible replacements: former Senator Richard Gordon, former Tourism Secretary Ace Durano, former Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, former MMDA Chairman Bayani Fernando, and Camarines Sur Governor Villafuerte. A lot of them have earnest track records in efficiency in management. However, history suggests that many of them will have difficulty switching alliances to the current Philippine president in office. Alternately, any incumbent undersecretary or assistant secretary can be promoted to the Cabinet position as long as he or she has a winning vision for Philippine tourism.

We need a leader at the helm, more than ever. Consider the numbers first:

Number of foreign tourist arrivals, 2008-2010
from United Nations World Tourism Organization 2011 Report
Asia and the Pacific184,057180,936203,838
Hong Kong (China)17,32016,92620,085
Macao (China)10,61010,40211,926
Korea. Republic of6,8917,8188,798
Taiwan (pr. of China)3,8454,3955,567

The Philippines should not compare itself with others, since that is crab mentality. However, when other neighboring countries have seen increasing statistics over the last 3 years while ours has become stagnant, shouldn’t this sound off the alarm?

Rather than to wade in the frustration of failures past, one way to exploit this numbers gap is to make visa applications more friendly! I don’t know how the immigration system works and if extortion is still rampant, but I’ve been through a horrible experience of extortion harassment from a male immigration officer in NAIA3 two or three years ago. There goes Filipino hospitality under the bus.

Well, how about discussing with other Southeast Asian countries the possibility of easing up cross-border controls for foreign arrivals? Europe, which attracts millions of tourist arrivals thanks to well-preserved historic sites, has a similar policy under the Schengen Agreement in 1985. The Schengen Area currently enlists 25 member-states, encompasses much of mainland Europe comprising 4.3 million square kilometers of land, and covers 400 million people. It’s like securing a single visa for inter-country travel into the entire Schengen area. Citizens from member states therefore do not need to bother with cross-border controls.

Schengen Area. image credits: Wikimedia

The Philippines has a lot of tourist spots and tourist festivals, yes, but they are physically far from each other, provided we are a fragmented archipelago. Sadly, even some of our functioning airports are dilapidated. It’s more difficult for an expatriate to experience the entire Philippines, when he or she can choose to stay in mainland Malaysia, Thailand, or Singapore where all famous destinations are reached by a single train ride.

Needless to say, in order to improve arrivals, any foreigner should first feel compelled to visit the Philippines, through quality ads seen on BBC, CNN, National Geographic, Discovery, or CNBC. For me, South Korea and Malaysia are doing a fantastic job. Many Filipinos watching these advertorials on TV are left scratching their heads: shouldn’t we at least spend our marketing money like they do?

Last time I checked, in chronological order, the most successful overseas themes we've had were Wow Philippines and Philippines: It’s More Than the Usual.

Second, it is pretty mandatory that tourists must feel safe. Therefore, pressing issues with kidnappers and terrorists must be properly addressed by concerned agencies aside from the DOT.

Lastly, we need a visionary leader ASAP. It’s not much to ask, since competent names are already put on the table. It is only then proper to ask you, dear Mr. President, to choose the successor wisely. Thank you very much.