Berna Romulo Puyat, wherever she goes

Published July 6, 2022, 3:00 PM

by AA Patawaran

If there’s anything to learn from this indefatigable woman, it’s hard work, adaptability, and doing what we must the best way we know how

QUEEN OF TRAVEL Portrait of former Tourism chief Berna Romulo Puyat (Illustration by Oteph Antipolo)

When we were in our early 20s, Berna Romulo Puyat was one of those I would spend hours with on the PLDT landline just talking about anything.

She and her late husband, Dave Puyat, were among the real life couples I handpicked to participate in special, intimate dinners for two I organized in Manila’s finest dining rooms for a Valentine’s Day project. That was how we met while I was new in lifestyle media. She was then, I believe, an instructor at the UP School of Economics.

For a while, as I got closer to her late sister Lupe Romulo, who wrote a weekly party column for me, and even when her own children, Maia and Vito, were writing youth articles for me, I’d like to think that Berna had been quiet, except for a message now and then when the occasion called for it.

I would attribute those quiet years to her stint in government first as economic consultant and deputy cabinet secretary in the Arroyo administration and then as undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture (DA), where she stayed from 2007 to 2018. I guess, it was also my own indifference, my zero interest in the goings-on in the Philippine government.

HAPPY FAMILY Berna (middle) with (from left) her son Vito and daughter Maia

Berna had been at the DA when Filipino food, as well as other Filipino things, like fashion and fabrics and heroes like Antonio Luna, became the thing. Like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, we were suddenly more interested not only in what we ate as a people, but also how we cooked or prepared it, where it came from, who farmed or fished or cultured it, who invented the techniques…

When the Department of Tourism (DOT), under Mon Jimenez, launched Madrid Fusión Manila (MFM) in 2015, the first Asian edition of the Spanish gastronomy congress, we thought it was going to be another typical Manila event, in which the foreigners would be the stars of the show.

But the DA was a proud partner of the DOT in the MFM project and Berna was directly involved, in charge as she was of Philippine regional cuisine representation. In those quiet years before 2015, she was hard at work bridging the gap between farmers and the market, between farmers and the restaurants, between farmers and the chefs. Thanks to MFM, she was given a platform to bring out years of hard work, this time bridging the gap between the Filipino farmers, fisherfolk, and other food producers and the world. With the flourish of the chefs, emerging and established, she had championed in the regions, the availability and great potential of various agricultural products and ingredients across the Philippines were showcased at this international congress to the delight of both local and international chefs and consumers. They were the true stars of MFM.

It was only a matter of time before Berna would move on to head the DOT, where she had had to deal with challenges unprecedented—the closure of Boracay, the country’s top destination, for instance, and then the pandemic. A two-year standstill ensued just when Philippine tourism, under Berna’s leadership, was registering record numbers, growing in the case of domestic tourism expenditures from ₱2.85 trillion in 2018 to ₱3.14 trillion in 2019 and, in the case of inbound tourism expenditure, posting the highest growth in 2019 with a total of ₱548.76 billion from ₱445.58 billion the year before.

IN BUTTERFLY SLEEVES Berna in banig terno

Still, having stepped down from her post as DOT secretary on June 30, Berna is proud to leave behind the industry she so selflessly carried a torch for with a contribution to the Philippine economy that increased to almost 13 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021, despite the still raging pandemic.

At its 21st global summit held in Manila in April, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) recognized that last year, following an 80 percent decline as a result of the pandemic, Philippine travel and tourism’s contribution to the nation’s economy climbed to 129.5 percent year on to reach $41 billion, which ranked us as the world’s fourth fastest growing economy in 2021.

‘I never sought to prove myself to naysayers—I only sought to do my job as best I could.’

Berna has since moved on to what she describes as a quieter phase of her career in government, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, where she is now deputy governor and head of the program management office.

Do I expect quiet years ahead for Berna? No. Excellence, even at its quietest, is always seen, heard, felt, talked or even shouted about, but I do wish she will find a little more room to breathe. Meanwhile, I engaged Berna for old times’ sake on a version of “telebabad” on Messenger and here are snippets of our chat.

What book do you consider most influential in the way your life has panned out? 

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, which teaches us to: Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours; and say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. 

What would your 18-year-old self say to the woman you have become now?

Wow, you’ve been really busy! 

If you have one trait you could pass on to your children, what would it be? 

The one trait I would pass on to my children would be integrity in everything we do. 

LOVING COMPANION Former Tourism chief Berna Puyat in Little Black Terno at home with her pug Biggie

If you could change one thing about the Philippines, what would it be? 

That more of our people would develop pride of place, so that our local cultural heritage will be respected and our natural environment will be preserved.  

The worst thing anyone has said about you that turned out to have had the most impact on your drive for success? 

I have often been underestimated. But I never sought to prove myself to naysayers—I only sought to do my job as best I could and let my accomplishments speak for themselves. 

The one thing a stranger has said about you that made you cry (tears of joy)

A message I received just recently: “Thank you for opening up tourism. Thank you for fighting for us. Taking on work beyond what’s expected of you was crucial to survive the pandemic.” 

If you can make people have more faith in their dreams in one sentence, how would you word it? 

There are many roads that can lead you to your destination. 

Of all the hats you have worn, what do you consider the most challenging? 

Being a mother. Being a single, working mother was especially a challenge, but I’m constantly rewarded when I see my children becoming good and hardworking people. 

What can you say to people on the brink of giving up? 

“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. Today we will survive…” That’s from BTS. 

What’s on top of your gratitude list? 

Seeing the Philippine tourism industry start to flourish again after two years of difficulties. 

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE Berna receives presidential medal of merit from former President Duterte at Malacañan Palace

What award would you give yourself, if you could? 

If I were to give myself an award, it would be for adaptability and playing to my strengths in whatever sector I find myself in. 

If God were to give you a whole month of vacation, how will you spend it?

Traveling and eating with my kids. 

What is your greatest, grandest goal for the Philippines? 

That Filipinos will be uplifted from poverty.