[Election special] A country’s tourism tries to catch up


MANILA—Fresh graduate Ria Joyce Bernardo was almost clueless where Caramoan town is —that place in Camarines Sur province with groups of islands said to be pristine, untouched. “It’s a hidden virgin island,” she was told of the spot where the seven foreign franchises of popular television reality show Survivor had shot episodes.

Domestic tourists like fresh college graduate Ria Joyce Bernardo find the country's scenic spots "more fun," like the island groupings of Caramoan municipality in Camarines Sur. Such happiness from local and foreign tourists --and more of those, especially through actual visits-- are what the Philippine government hopes as it plays catch up in tourism. (Photo taken from Ria Bernardo's Facebook account)

Domestic tourists like fresh college graduate Ria Joyce Bernardo find the country’s scenic spots “more fun,” like the island groupings of Caramoan municipality in Camarines Sur. Such happiness from local and foreign tourists –and more of those, especially through actual visits– are what the Philippine government hopes as it plays catch up in tourism. (Photo taken from Ria Bernardo’s Facebook account)

Toting tinted sun glasses, Bernardo looked straight ahead and saw the bluish color of the Caramoan Peninsula’s sea coming from the boat ride from Sabang Pier in San Jose Town to Caramoan’s Guijalo Port. From unloading their stuff at a hotel (Bernardo and company took a student-rate package), Kuya Dennis, a tour guide, warmly escorted them into the pump boat for the island hopping tour.

From Hunongan island to Gota island and eight other top island groupings there, Bernardo was struck with their tall, uneven, moss-covered black limestone formations. The rock formations in some of the island groups were seemingly placed by master craftsmen, and they’re covered with white powdery sand. “Wow, God is so amazing to have created these,” Bernardo said.

Lunch followed, at a restaurant that’s inside a medium-sized nipa hut —floating in the middle of the sea, part of a P4,200 “student-friendly” package with hotel accommodation, food and the island tour for four days and three nights.

The Philippines has these wonders, asked the young domestic tourist, brought there by a college friend companion who’s a fan of Survivor. “Why I didn’t know much about this place?”

That’s amid the media craze that “It’s more fun in the Philippines” (a tagline Bernardo’s familiar with) bellowed, sung, made memes of. The Philippines remains a tourism laggard in the Asian region. While the catch-up remains, signs point upward for the Aquino administration.

So do the numbers: the country reached an all-time high of 4,272,811 foreign tourist arrivals last year, the Department of Tourism beams proudly. Since Christmas time of 2012 up to last March, over-417,000 foreign tourists came monthly, including the all-time, month-only high of 436,079 last January. (Data on domestic tourists are estimated when DOT and the National Statistics Office conduct period surveys on household domestic visitors).

The arrivals last year showed that January and December are peak months —not the summer months of April and May— so the last four months of over-417,000 foreign tourists are “a first for the Philippines,” says a Malacañang statement.

Secretary Ramon Jimenez has been using his advertising background to aggressively say that the Philippines is “more fun to visit”. DOT is also happy also with recent honors from abroad for certain tourist destinations (like El Nido, Palawan or the Farm at San Benito in Lipa City, Batangas). Even foreign business publications have lauded Philippine tourism as “Asia’s most popular destination” and as the “Best Tourist Destination,” ironically from two Chinese news publications.

What more the country’s most recent leapfrog in the biennial Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Indexof the World Economic Forum (WEF): from 94th in 2011 to 82nd in 2013. Even if the WEF’s various major and sub-criteria saw the Philippines rank in the middle to low-level tier of the 140 countries surveyed, the Philippines was first worldwide in “government expenditures” to tourism in the 2013 survey round.

These are the running gains of the government’s five-year National Tourism Development Plan, a blueprint that targets 10 million foreign tourists visiting the Philippines, staying at an average of nine nights, and spending over-P4,300 a day when Aquino’s term ends. DOT also hopes 56.5 million local travelers will travel 142 million times, stay an average of four-and-a-half nights, and spend an average of over-P11, 000 for four trips.

Tourist sites like Caramoan are now grouped into nine major cluster destinations. Foreign tourist markets are being segmented. Some local airports are being fixed, as even the construction of access roads to tourist sites is bankrolled. Even residents in local tourism destinations are to be trained. Now DOT wants local government units, the ones that manage these tourist destinations, to be more involved (like Batangas province’s annual Ala Eh! Festival, launched by re-electionist governor Vilma Santos-Recto in 2007).

All these plans that the NTDP mapped out are P265.9 billion in worth, and DOT wants tourism to contribute eight percent to gross domestic product and 6.8 million jobs. But it’s a catching up matter: While absolute numbers under the Aquino administration saw spikes in the volume of travelers, growth rates of foreign tourists had been declining in the last two years. For the past 16 years, the average growth rate of foreign tourist volumes is only five percent.

Tourism graph for Carrillo story

That is where tourism promotion —via word-of-mouth, through special events like fiestas, and even through the facilities such as more rooms for the growing influx of travelers— is “the work of everybody,” says tourism analyst and travel blogger Niña Fuentes. “It’s not just the DOT that needs to transform tourist destinations.”

But the catch up for Philippine tourism may be like how travelers like Ria Bernardo and her friends went to Caramoan: Eight hours by bus from Manila to Naga City, an hour’s drive from Naga City to Sabang Pier in San Jose town, and a two-hour boat ride from Sabang Pier to Guijalo Port in Caramoan.  They’re “willing to go to the beaten path,” said Fuentes, “but aside from promotion, we (Filipinos) have to work on what we have right now.”



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