Going beyond hype
If we are to believe Tourism Secretary Ace Durano, the Philippine tourism industry is making great headway, supposedly even more so now that we’re making a bid to become the medical tourism destination in the world. I hope we’re not staking our fortunes on Vicky Belo and the Calayans, though. I’d hate to elevate to the global community the question of whether or not Boy Abunda is fit to become an endorser of beauty.
Of course this latest development is a little confusing because it seemed only yesterday when we were making a pitch for ecotourism. And just before that, we were proclaiming to the world (remember Wow Philippines?) the wonders of our mainstream tourism spots—Boracay, Palawan, Chocolate Hills, etc—and gloating about how they were better than other more popular tourism destinations in other countries.
But I’m not going to quibble with marketing messages in this piece although I am of the belief that a more consistent, a more integrated, and perhaps a more strategically thought-out campaign would not be such a bad idea.
It’s a foregone conclusion that we really should aggressively bat for a bigger slice of the global tourism pie. To begin with, we have the sites. Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry. Tourism means jobs. Tourism means more economic activities particularly at the local community levels. Unfortunately, having effective marketing strategies is one thing; having adequate and efficient infrastructure is another. Unfortunately, I am not quite sure that we’re doing as much as we can for the latter. Thus, I am afraid that we might have the best marketing strategies and the best tourist attractions in the country but we might not have the other necessities that would sustain a tourism boom. There is only so much hype can do, after all.
What got me thinking about the state of our readiness to welcome more tourists into the country was a series of experiences—some of them not quite pleasant—that I had recently while traveling around the country. In the last two months, I’ve been in at least five key cities and several recreational spots near Metro Manila such as Tagaytay City and Caliraya Lake and Calamba in Laguna.
First off, I wonder what it will really take to finally establish order at our airports. The general chaos that is present at departure and arrival terminals all over the country is a cause for national shame. I’ve ranted about this many times in the past already and it annoys me that it seems the people who manage our airports don’t have the political will nor the inclination to finally put method into the madness.
At the Ninoy Aquino Centennial Terminal, for example, the check-in procedures have become even more confounding with the implementation of common check-in counters. In the past, they would assign specific counters for specific flights and this established some kind of order as people lined up at their designated counters. With the common check-in counters, the lines have become quite long. And worse, passengers who are already late for their flights end up being allowed to jump the queues to the consternation of other passengers who precisely came early to avoid the check-in hassle.
I know. A large part of the chaos can be attributed to lack of discipline on the part of passengers, which I think is exacerbated when authorities do not implement the rules strictly. The way I see it, we can’t attain order and enforce discipline if we don’t have the political will to implement the rules strictly. This is also painfully brought to the fore during boarding when people jostle each other and defy boarding procedures just to be the first to get inside the plane, as if being the first to board ensures that they arrive ahead of everyone else at the destination.
Let’s not anymore get into the hassles passengers are subjected to under the guise of enforcing safety and security.
If checking in at departure terminals is a hassle, retrieving baggage upon arrival is a nightmare. In many key cities, terminals have a lone baggage conveyor belt that doesn’t even go around—clearly not equipped to handle the volume of passengers and their baggage. I was in General Santos City recently where the first order of business upon arrival was—in addition to dealing with the extreme heat and humidity—fighting tooth and nail with a thousand other passengers (three planes arrived within minutes of each other) to retrieve baggage. It was total bedlam as passengers were left to their own devices and not a single airport personnel was on hand to establish order. Like anywhere else, there were dozens of porters standing around like sentries, waiting to be contracted first before they would lift a finger to assist anyone.
In many instances I have noticed how foreigners would simply cluck their tongues at the spectacle and shake their heads in bewilderment and frustration. An airport is the first and last thing that greets tourists and if conditions there are dismal, then we should stop deluding ourselves that they would wish to come back or even spread positive word of mouth about the country. As it is, we already have a negative reputation on account of the kidnappings that is happening in the South.
And then there is the matter of ensuring that we have adequate facilities for tourists. I am aware that there are five-star facilities in this country that offer amenities and customer service that are world class. But these facilities are quite few and don’t really cater to the average tourist. In addition, these facilities are not really representative of what this country has to offer and what we’re really about. In Bohol, for example, there’s Eskaya Resort and the Panglao Beach Resort for the upscale market, but there are also quite a number of resorts along Alona beach for the regular tourists. The same setup exists in Palawan, Cebu, Puerto Galera, etc. The problem, obviously, is that more often than not, amenities and customer service at mainstream resorts and tourist spots often stink.
I was at Caliraya Lake for the weekend and I can honestly say that the facilities of the resort were quite okay—it had a mud slide, a zip line, a swimming pool, and a number or team-building facilities such as volleyball and soccer games using a giant earth ball.
Unfortunately, customer service in the resort left people breathless - with frustration. The resort offered free buffet meals as part of their package and the food - although not really something to write home about—was at least abundant. The problem was that the staff simply piled food on buffet servers as if they were serving convicts and simply let their customers fend for themselves. The facilities were okay—the management systems were painfully inadequate.
Conditions at the lake mirror the problems of the tourism industry in the country. Caliraya Lake is still worth visiting. The facilities of the resort can pass muster. Unfortunately, location and facilities are not enough. Customer service also counts. Putting some order and system into the operations also matters. It can’t be all hype. We need to think not just about enticing people into our country, we actually need to think about serving these tourists and making sure that their visit becomes a delightful experience.