Monday, June 1, 2015

We ourselves should be tourism ambassadors


by Gideon Lasco

NEW YORK CITY - On a recent trip to Ecuador I managed to convince two backpackers to visit the Philippines. One of them, a medical doctor from the Netherlands, was planning to do a backpacking trip around Southeast Asia but hadn't considered the Philippines at all until I showed her pictures of Coron and Puerto Princesa. The other, a fresh graduate from Germany, had already heard nice things about the Philippines and just needed some convincing. A mountaineer, he was pleasantly surprised that there are lots of hiking possibilities in the country - from volcanoes like Mt. Apo in Southern Mindanao and Kanlaon in Negros to long walks in the Cordilleras that live up to the Department of Tourism’s one-time tagline of “nature, adventure, and culture”.

My interactions with foreigners have made me realize how important personal endorsements can be in the decisions of travelers on which countries to visit. Testimonials can be just as powerful as the best pictures in travel magazines, or the most crisp videos on travel shows, in enticing people to visit. Thus, Filipinos who work and travel abroad - of whom there are millions - are an untapped resource in the government's efforts to boost tourism in the country, especially in light of its target of 10 million visitor arrivals in 2016.

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It must begin with our being proud about our country. If we ourselves don’t think our country is worth visiting, how can we convince others to come? Of course, we do have our own little complaints about the Philippines - the traffic, the policitians, the slow Internet connection, and an even slower bureaucracy. But then, which nation doesn’t have problems? These misgivings aside, we have to put our best foot forward and show that there is much more to the Philippines than the problems we sometimes tend to highlight.

Next, we must make a convincing case for why visitors should come to the Philippines. That the cost of living is generally cheap, and that most Filipinos speak English, are good enticements. But we must know the best of what our country has to offer, and it will also help if we know what our would-be guests are interested in. Divers have plenty of choices as within the Philippines lies the “center of the center" of world’s marine biodiversity. Those seeking a more cultural experience should discover our heritage towns, like Intramuros, Vigan, Miag-ao, to name a few - or charming locales like Batanes and the many mountain towns in the Cordilleras. Shoppers will enjoy the malls of Manila and Cebu, while nature lovers may be better off heading straight to Palawan or Bukidnon. There are great caves in Samar for spelunking, limestone cliffs in Cebu for rock climbing, great seafood everywhere…even one day out of Manila is enough to take visitors to the lush tropical forests of Mt. Makiling or stunning views of volcanoes Taal and Pinatubo.

Of course, we must be honest about what visitors should expect. Typhoons, for instance, can thrwart planned trips, especially in the wet season. Traffic in Manila can be frustrating. Then there are places that might be risky for foreigners to visit. However, we must emphasize how circumscribed these places are. Moreover, while these considerations may deter a few, most travelers are aware that there’s always a risk anywhere and that it’s part of the adventure of traveling.

Finally, offering continued assitance will go a long way. I told my newfound friends in Ecuador to feel free to email me if they have questions. Having a contact in an unfamilar place can be the final push people need to come and visit. And the information they need is often effortless for us to provide. Surely it will be easy for us to give tips about taxi drivers in Manila, or how to get to Baguio by bus. By accommodating their inquiries, we are already enacting the hospitality that Filipinos are known for.

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Tourism is not without its criques, and certainly there are many issues that we need to address before we can wholeheartedly embrace it. Though the tourism sector is said to have contributed 6-7% of the country’s GDP in the past years, we must ask whether the profits in tourism have translated to better quality of life among communities within tourist destinations. We must also ask whether tourism has been environmentally sustainable, as in places like Sagada and Boracay that are clearly going beyond their “carrying capacities” during peak seasons.

These concerns notwithstanding, I think we are all agreed that tourism, done responsibly and sustainably, has a great potential in contributing to our country’s growth. More than the economics, tourism promotes understanding among cultures, and this goodwill can doubtless help many overseas Filipinos, as well as our diplomatic standing in general. Finally, we can actually steer tourism in a more favorable way by directing our guests to experiences and establishments that are friendly to local communities and the environment.

In ending, let me attest my conviction that the Philippines is one of the best places in the planet and it has much to offer to visitors from all walks of life. But we cannot solely rely on occasional TV commercials, ”It’s more Fun in the Philippines" billboards, and occasional inclusions in “must-visit” lists by travel magazines to make this known to people around world, especially if we have a more direct way to get them to come. Indeed, if our tourism sector is to grow, we must take it upon ourselves to be ambassadors and endorsers of our own country.

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