Monday, September 13, 2010

Tourism and our airports

This was my column on the date indicated above.

The prophecies of the various prophets of doom have come to pass. The number of tourists arriving in the country is now on a steady decline. Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific Air have reduced the number of flights to and from a number of Asean destinations—notably Hong Kong. But then again, did anyone actually think that the local tourism industry would not be affected by the August 23 hostage-taking incident? We knew we’d suffer a slump. I know I am going to get it from some quarters for saying this, but it needs to be said: Not that we were up there on top as a tourist destination in Asia, anyway. For crying out loud, we only get a fraction of what Thailand or even Singapore gets in terms of tourist arrivals.

So now is probably the best time to go back to the drawing board and come up with new and hopefully better strategies to jump-start the Philippine tourism industry once again. I know it’s a cliché but really, rather than whine and mope around at our misfortune, perhaps we can use this breather to finally get a number of things done that would finally put the Philippines on the map as a preferred tourist destination.

The main problem, I think, is that most Filipinos do not really appreciate the strategic value of tourism in national development. Sure, a lot of people worried about the impact of the hostage-taking incident on the image of the country abroad—but reservations were mainly on account of national pride, as in nakakahiya (what a shame). The reality is that most Filipinos still don’t see how tourism spurs economic growth—the connection between a vibrant tourism industry and jobs for example has remained inchoate. In fact, in many rural areas, tourists are simply seen as visitors, and often as the types who get in the way of their daily routines. Worse, many see tourists simply as people we can take advantage of.

Very obviously, if we really are serious about positioning tourism as an engine of economic growth, we need to get everyone sold to the idea. Tourism is something that requires collaborative efforts from everyone. The so-called Filipino hospitality (which really needs to be defined behaviorally rather than left to the discretion of individual Filipinos) is not something that can be limited to those who work at our airports and those who work at hotels and restaurants. Whether we like it or not, tourists interact with all kinds of people—from policemen to sidewalk vendors to ordinary people who just happen to be in the same place as some tourists at a particular time. The Thais know this quite well, which is why they are generally nice and don’t take advantage of tourists.

We worry a lot about tourists shunning the Philippines, but we don’t worry enough about making sure that those who do come to the country have a great time. And quite frankly, many of our facilities are pitifully and horrendously decrepit and in various stages of decay.

It stands to reason that our airports must be in great shape. Airports are the first and last places that tourists see about a country. Let’s begin by really improving the state of our airport terminals!

Anyone who has been to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1 will readily tell you a horror story of how that place is falling apart. There are not enough chairs at the departure lounge so it has become normal for passengers to stand around while waiting for the time they are allowed to board their planes. People cannot even sit on the floor because the floors look like the sidewalks of Quiapo and the carpets stink.

A friend told me about how she had to suffer for an hour trying to postpone the “call of nature” because she just couldn’t use the toilets of NAIA1. She said the toilets were grimy and stank to high heavens. When people prefer the cramped lavatories inside the planes rather than use NAIA Terminal 1 toilets, then we have a very serious problem indeed.

This is a question that I have wanted to ask for a long time: Why can’t we ensure that public toilets are clean? In terminals, malls, government offices, hospitals, etc, we take a lot of pains ensuring that grounds are well manicured and maintained, floors are mopped and shiny, etc. We always see a janitor mopping floors or pruning shrubs but we hardly see them cleaning toilets. I have always wondered why Ayala malls charge fees for the use of toilets that are cleaner—it’s like saying that clean toilets are not normal in this country.

Not only are public toilets often dirty and look unsanitary, they are also often inadequate. Has anyone noticed, for example, that at the departure area for local flights at the Centennial Terminal, there is only one toilet that is open to the public? Only one toilet for about two thousand passengers at rush hours! Naturally, this toilet is often dirty, as the janitors cannot cope with the quick succession of people who want to use the facility. Clearly, this is a problem of lack of strategic thinking. When they built the terminal, they should have considered that people do use bathrooms before flying out.

The same lack of foresight can be noted at terminals all over the country. I was at the Mactan International Airport recently and I noted the same problem—long lines at the public toilets. Funny thing is that the terminal had ample spaces for stores that sell various wares! The domestic airport at Tacloban City is currently being renovated but the ongoing renovation has not taken into account the comfort of passengers. They put in place this really stupid and appalling arrangement in the bathroom where they filled plastic bottles with water and expect passengers to use these rather than use the faucets. The construction work is conducted in the midst of passengers who are left with no choice but to inhale the dust and bear the extreme heat as the air-conditioning units are no longer turned on.

This is why I took some comfort in a news item that appeared in the inside pages of this paper last week. Cabinet officials led by Transportation Secretary Jose de Jesus, Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim, Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Trade and Industry Secretary Gregory Domingo and about 20 executives from the travel sector met at the NAIA to discuss a proposed face-lift of the airport supposedly in time for the last quarter’s peak travel season. “One of things we discussed was how to improve the experience of incoming and outgoing passengers,” De Jesus was quoted as saying. About time, actually!

Improving the state of our airports (and bathrooms) will go a long way in terms of building the necessary infrastructure for tourism. So much more needs to be done, but right now, let’s start with our airports and our toilets!

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