When reality bites… our tourism picture (Part 1)



Happy New Year! And here’s to a brighter, better year ahead. It’s good to be optimistic, and I won’t argue with those who say it’s rewarding to think positive with the ‘good news’; but I only hope that we recognize how context, truth, and hard facts should also carry weight - and be part of how we address the issues that face us, and challenge us, this 2024. Denial, deceiving ourselves, merely painting the picture rosy, isn’t going to help in the long run.

What do I mean? Let’s take a look at the issues facing Philippine tourism today. We’re often told it should be one of the main drivers of our national recovery. We’ve received numerous titles this year including World’s Leading Diving Destination, World’s Leading Beach Destination, World’s Leading City Destination, plus Global Tourism Resilience Award, Asia’s Leading Dive Destination, and Asia’s Best Cruise Destination. And we breached the five million mark of tourist arrivals in December. So I’m extremely happy for the Philippines, and salute the hard work of our Department of Tourism, and the Tourism Promotions Board.

But if we contextualize all these “good news” stories against our ASEAN neighbors, the hard truth is there’s still so much we have to do; and we are in fact, lagging behind in the ‘recovery game’. Pre-Covid, the 2019 ASEAN figures looked like this: Thailand 39.7 million visitors, Malaysia 20.1 million, Vietnam 18 million, Singapore 15.9 million, Indonesia 13.6 million, Philippines eight million - and Cambodia, Myanmar, Lao PDR, and Brunei ranked after us.

A SEASIA stats 2023 infographic I saw in their FB page shows a stark improvement for Malaysia; which has actually surpassed Thailand, if we freeze the January to November figures. Analyze this, and you’ll see their 26 million this year, is even better than their 2019 figures. So they’re not talking gradual recovery to pre-Covid figures - they’ve left those figures in the rear view mirror.

And look how Singapore has jumped to #3 with 11.3M visitors in 10 months - and this, with only a total land area of 734.3 square kilometers. If you want to compare Singapore to us, we’re a country of 300,000 square kilometers, of which 298,170 is land. A modern airport, a city state known for efficiency and technological innovation, extensive infrastructure for the tourist/visitor - these all factor in as to why Singapore is such a popular city destination. They’ve even developed as a legitimate ASEAN culinary destination, along with Bangkok - if you don’t believe me, go count how many Asia Top 50 restos are found in those two cities!

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Our indefatigable Department of Tourism Secretary Christina G. Frasco, during the recent ‘Thank You to media’ event.

Vietnam has amassed 11.2 million visitors over 11 months, and let’s bear in mind that the tourism industry in Vietnam only really got started in the late 1980’s. Their policies on visas, their consistent build-up of infrastructure, their professionalizing the people working in the industry, have evidently paid dividends for the country’s tourism industry.

Just late this year, I went to a local tourism event, and a representative from one of our airlines spoke of the bright picture for Philippine tourism, and mentioned our “geographical advantage.” This is one example of our consistently fooling ourselves. The Philippines has not moved, so what exactly is this advantage I’ve been hearing for decades? It seems to be trotted out so there are additional slides in the presentation, but actually holds no meaning in air travel or with cruise ships.

If you want to be a ‘hub’ for regional air travel, it’s not going to happen with our NAIA terminals of today. Malaysia, has quietly parlayed the fact that there are land and maritime borders with Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, into constant visiting from these countries that count as foreign arrivals. Now, that’s a geographical consideration they took advantage of. And not just mentioning ‘advantage’ time and again, without it translating to something that means anything, something we can monetize.

Compare our Manila airports to Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand; and it doesn’t take a genius to observe that there’s a world of difference between those aforementioned, and our NAIA network. I’ve often said that if I had foreign visitors coming to the Philippines, I’d advise them to fly directly to Cebu, and completely bypass Manila - just so we increase their chances for a pleasant arrival experience.

The Cebu Airport and the Clark Pampanga Airport are the two air terminals we can be proud about, and it’s worth noting that one common factor with the two is the involvement of the Indian company, GMR - today considered one of the top five airport developers globally. Develop and operate, let’s recognize the professionals, and turn to them if it comes with an advantage.

Next week, I’ll talk about the travel experience we offer regular visitors, and why there’s still so much work that has to be done if we’re to exponentially increase the number of foreign arrivals in 2024. There are chinks in the ‘armor’ of Thailand, but can we take advantage… are we even aware of what should be done? And let’s talk about our perennial Immigration bottleneck, and nightmare, at our airports. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I do travel and observe, and listen to those who know the industry.