A GREATER support, awareness and appreciation for tourism initiatives, not only by the government but Filipinos themselves, have shaped the unprecedented growth of the industry for the last five years despite a multitude of problems.
Stronger support from both the public and private sector, backed up by both larger inputs in tourism investments and budget, have been key in advancing tourism under the Aquino administration, the Department of Tourism (DOT) said.
Under President Aquino’s watch, the Philippine tourism industry has bested regional and even global growth regardless of all the controversies and problems since 2010, according to Benito Bengzon, DOT undersecretary for tourism planning.
The compounded annual growth of the local tourism industry for 2010-2015 was pegged at about 8.25 percent.
“This average is better than what most Asian countries recorded, definitely what we experienced for global. This tells us that despite all the problems that have come our way we have come up with a strategy that has insulated our industry from all the negative effects of the recent incidents,” he said.
At the forefront of these problems earlier faced by the DOT was how to handle the image building strategy of the tourism industry.
“In the early years one of the problems that we faced was creating a higher awareness for the Philippines. How to build the country’s image,” said Bengzon.
And luckily for the government tourism agency, the answer came in 2012 with the birth of the “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign.
“The turnaround point was It’s More Fun in the Philippines, which was in January 2012. That was when we were taken more seriously. It is manifested in a way that the government started allocating an increasingly larger share of national budget for tourism,” he said.
The campaign merited the support of the locals and government, which made the way for the growing budget of the DOT for marketing and promotional initiatives.
For example, the budget for the Tourism and Promotions Board (TPB), the marketing arm of the DOT, has increased by six-fold in less than six years.
From P65-million in 2010, when it was still the Philippine Convention and Visitors Convention, it has grown to a current budget of P500-million.
“This administration has given tourism more support than we have ever seen. This is shown in the budget allocation,” Bengzon added.
The budget of the agencies and divisions under the DOT Secretary more than doubled since 2009, from P1.618-billion to an estimated P3.6-billion this year.
The private sector has also increased its investments to develop tourism. Endorsed projects of the DOT to the Board and Investments (BOI) and Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA) reached P160-billion in 2015.
A total of 128 tourism projects were approved to be eligible to avail incentives , which include income tax holidays and employment of foreign nations, from the two investment agencies, according to official data from the DOT.
However, more concrete issues have since been haunting the tourism industry, particularly problems on overcoming overall safety and security concerns of foreign visitors.
For example, several issues, from the 2010 Manila hostage to the still on-going territorial disputes, have dampened the country’s relationship with the Asian behemoth, China.
On and off travel advisories from Beijing since the start of the administration, have led to the gradual decline of the number of Chinese tourists visiting the country.
This is seen as a major blow to the local tourism industry as China is among the top five source markets of the country.
Recent controversies, like the Samal Kidnapping and the “Tanim-Bala” incidents last year, also hampered the growth of the industry.
Still, the DOT said no major negative impact on the flow of international tourists was felt despite all the security concerns.
“This tells us that despite all the problems that have come our way we have come up with a strategy that has insulated our industry from all the negative effects of the recent incidents.” Bengzon said.
This strategy has been to strengthen The DOT’s public relations offensive actions to mitigate the effects of these issues which they cannot control.
“We have a well-crafted strategy to make sure that we don’t completely fall down when we experience challenges along the way,” Bengzon said. “(It is about) a strategy in terms of negative news counter with our own PR offensive through familiarization tours for agents and media. It is singing louder than the noise. The negative news we cannot wipe out really, but it is about generating positive news.”
To ensure that the tourism industry is continually growing despite the decline in some markets, like the incident with China, the DOT said it is imperative that new source markets should offset the visitor decrease.
This was done through the setting up of a market and development group, now seen as a key support program under the Aquino administration, headed by DOT Secretary Ramon Jimenez.
“This group is responsible for expanding the market base by identifying new markets, whether they are geographic markets or segments,” said Bengzon.
Currently, the group is looking at growing visitor arrivals from the Southeast Asian region and the Scandinavian block, according to Verna Covar-Buensuceso, officer in charge of the market development group.
The DOT is looking to grow visitor arrivals from Indonesia, Thailand, and Russia, as well as Norway and Denmark.
These markets are seen to have double-digit increases in around three to five years, as the DOT is currently in talks with the private sector to formulate a marketing plan and strategy to help attract tourists to the country.
“Right now these markets are not producing big numbers yet. Less than 100,000 visitors, but in terms of generation capacity, it is very good for us because they stay for long periods of time” Buensuceso said.
Crafting tourism programs to cater to the specific needs of the visitors is key to growing these markets, especially for high-yield markets like those in South Africa, Middle East and Mediterranean Europe.
“We are looking at the potential of these growing markets. We have to look at the ‘winability’ of the market and match it with the products here in the country,” she said.
But more than tourism strategy development, improving air connectivity to these potential markets should first be prioritized by stakeholders as ensuring seamless air connectivity is seen as one of the pillars which support the tourism industry.
One priority program that the administration took to guarantee smoother air connectivity is opening up the secondary gateways of the country to mitigate congestion in Manila.
“Strategically what is important now is to disperse the traffic to more gateways. It achieves many objectives: one in a way it helps to decongest our primary gateway, but more importantly it also now allows us to promote more aggressively the secondary destinations and bring economic activity to far more communities,” Bengzon said.
The development of more points of entry, for both commercial and charter flights, has been crucial to the growth of the industry.
Charter flights, for one, was able to grow by 20-25 percent in 2015 with a total of 230,958 available seats, mostly flights to secondary destinations like Legazpi, Bacolodo, and Kalibo, according to Erwin Balane, head of the DOT route development team.
“The development of Kalibo for example, one of the major points of entry for charter flights was realized during the term of President Aquino. We’re talking about an airport that wasn’t exactly sleepy but relatively small in terms of passengers, but is now getting more in terms of percentage,” added Bengzon.
The Kalibo airport saw an estimated 411,000 passengers in 2014, contributing about 8.5 percent to total inbound traffic.
“We will see that the Movement is not just into manila, but it is starting to be dispersed. It is all very deliberate in our strategy to position the Philippines as a multiple destination country,” Bengzon said.
Local stakeholder empowerment
Empowering local executives and stakeholders is also part of the backbone that has supported the local tourism industry in the last five years, added Bengzon.
Equipping government and tourist officials with the necessary tools in tourism planning and development has fostered a greater awareness in the people directly involved in the industry.
Convergence programs with other government agencies, like the Department of Interior and Local Government and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, empowered the public sector to develop their own sustainable tourism plans for their communities.
“With these convergence programs, we train and empower local communities and give them livelihood opportunities which in effect they become a part of the tourism value chain,” said Bengzon.
This support for local government units (LGUs) will likely ensure a more seamless travel experience for tourists all over the country, according to Aileen Clement, president of the Asean Tourism Association.
“The support is there, it is a lot of mindset change that is most significant. It is not just the DOT that needs to understand what the tourism industry is about. And they did a very good campaign for everyone, including the private sector, LGUs and other government units, on what tourism is about. It is not just about a hotel, waterfall or road network, but a combination of these that provide a seamless travel experience that defines tourism,” she said.