The government is always saying that there is something wrong with our tourism industry. After all, why is it that Thailand and Malaysia could attract 14 million tourists/year, while we attract only 3 million? Good question. But I don’t think that the answer lies with our tourism slogan. Or that the country needs to “re-brand” the country’s tourism campaign. I think the problem (problems, actually) behind the lack of tourists is not in the way we advertise the country. We have problems enough, as it is.
In the first place, I would say that the security image of the country is quite negative. And, this is mostly due to the Muslim insurgency and the image of lawlessness in Mindanao. Foreigners are not that good in geography, and they can’t comprehend that only the Southwestern part of Mindanao has violent incidents, and the rest of the country is generally peaceful. News of the Maguindanao massacre by the Ampatuans, and of rebel activities in Mindanao, help to paint a picture of insecurity. And the kidnapping of foreigners by Abu Sayyaf in Palawan didn’t help either.
Our geography is another negative factor for tourism. Our country is an archipelago, which means that transfers from one island to another would have to be by boat or plane – and this means additional expenses and travel time for the tourists. By comparison, Thailand and Malaysia are composed mostly of contiguous land mass (most tourists in Malaysia stick to peninsular Malaysia). And to make things worse, the Philippines has terrible weather during July and August, the peak months for travel for Europeans and Americans. The rainy season for Malaysia and Thailand starts later, around October. It’s a pity that Mindanao, which has good weather in July/August, has a reputation for violence.
And of course, there is the thing about the country’s airlines not being accredited by the US and the European Union (actually, they are on a blacklist). This means that travellers from these places could not get travel insurance if they fly on our airlines; and this is quite a big deterrent for potential tourists. After all, they could always just go to Indonesia, Thailand or Malaysia, whose airlines are accredited.
So, based on the above factors, I think that the Philippines should realistically expect to be able to generate less than 14 million tourists. But, this is not the say that we should simply accept having only 3 million tourists – I think it could be possible to host a couple of million more tourists per year, if we do things right.
Treat the Tourists Special
Tourists, especially if they come from Europe, have come from quite far away. They have spent a significant amount of money to come over. We need to lay out the welcome mat for them. It would not do for them to be swindled on their first day in Manila, or have to contend with sub-standard rooms and facilities. We should ensure that they get the best possible treatment.
Tourist Police and Tourist Courts. We should form a special section of the police force to work in tourist areas, and to deal with crimes towards tourists. These police should be able to crack down hard on criminals that victimize tourists. And special courts should be set up to handle crimes against tourists; meaning, for one thing, very speedy handling of cases (since the tourist is in the Philippines for a short time). The punishment should be extra harsh, and speedy.
Special Handling of Complaints and Inconveniences. In cases where the tourist suffers from unexpected inconvenience, authorities should step in to facilitate things. For example, if they get sick with something like dengue; the government should take over their medical expenses. Or, if they have problems with their accomodations, the government should be able to help resolve the problem. I think the government should set up something like a Tourism Ombudsman Office in the various tourist areas to take care of complaints and inconveniences. And they should really be able to work fast – none of the usual bureaucratic slow handling of cases.
Maximize Balikbayans, Social Media
Balikbayans make up a significant portion of the tourists in the country. Foreigners accompanying balikbayans also get the balikbayan stamp on their passport upon entry. And I think we can do even more so that balikbayans generate even more tourists.
Bring a Friend Campaign. I think there was a campaign before to that effect. Anyway, I think they should revive it. Overseas Filipinos are the country’s best advertisement. They could encourage their friends to come to the Philippines with them. I think it should be possible to offer discounts or special deals to foreigners who come to the country together with a balikbayan.
Utilize Social Media. The Department of Tourism should promote the Philippines through social media. Posts in facebook, or blogs, show our friends abroad how beautiful the country is. And, since they are personal experiences, they are quite credible. I think what the DOT can do is to have contests/awards for the blog that best promotes tourism. And make the award category by destination. Thus, we would have the best tourist blog about Boracay, Bohol, Cebu, Camiguin, Metro Manila , etc. This could generate attention among the bloggers, and this kind of thing would also get spread through facebook etc.. And, for the budget conscious DOT, it is relatively cheap.
Building the country’s tourism industry is not a matter of having flashing slogans; rather, it takes hard work over a long period to build up the image of the country as a tourist destination. It could not be done overnight.